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Friday, Nov 7, 2008

If you ask Guillermo Del Toro what his most personal films are, the answer seems obvious - at first. The Devil’s Backbone was a chance for the Mexican moviemaker to discuss the impact of Spanish Civil War on his ancestral homeland. It combined a Gothic ghost story with a strong political agenda. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth extended the meditation to the Franquist repression during the Franco regime. Again, we got a mixture of history, heritage, honor, and horror. The third choice, however, is the oddest overall. While no one expects Blade 2 or Mimic to join the others, both Cronos and the original Hellboy were close to his humble geek heart.


Yet, oddly enough, it’s the sequel to his 2004 comic book hero epic that sits closest to the man’s soul. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation (new from Universal) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we hear Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.


You see, long ago, when the Earth was green, humanity and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could be let loose. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic demon with a decent heart named Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.


Clearly, the connection to Mike Mignola’s comic and character is now very loose, to say the least. In fact, Del Toro reveals as part of his discussion, that when he first heard the idea for a follow-up film, Hellboy’s daddy was distraught. He didn’t like or appreciate much about the follow-up. But leave it to the likable Latino with the mind of an ADD amplified arrested adolescent to bring him around. The Golden Army is indeed great. It is two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.


Del Toro has always been the biggest of genre mavens, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling over his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.


Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 


Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.


All of these underlying themes and subtle subtexts are further explored in the DVDs bonus features (by the way, the final disc is just a digital copy of the film). We learn how the Troll Market reflects Del Toro’s views on good and evil. We see deleted scenes meant to strength the bonds between the characters. As part of the Director’s Notebooks, Del Toro discusses how Pan’s Labyrinth and the difficulty of said shoot allowed him to escape into the world of The Golden Army. And all throughout the added content, form and design, shape and approach are dissected and described, Del Toro’s unique idea for the film fleshed out by artisan’s able to fully realize his aims.


That’s why this movie is one of 2008’s best. Del Toro describes it best when he says that it’s the kind of film that, if he had seen it when he was an eager 11 year old, he would have obsessed on it for months. That’s because, instead of pulling back, this director unleashes the full force of his creative power - and the results are ridiculously resplendent.  It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat.


So we really shouldn’t be surprised to see a gentle giant with Satan’s skin standing right alongside the real world characters caught between war and remembrance in Del Toro’s canon. To dismiss Hellboy II: The Golden Army as nothing more than a pleasant popcorn experience is to underestimate the power in this filmmaker’s soul. Of all the foreign voices finding a way in mainstream genre moviemaking, Guillermo Del Toro is truly one of the best. It will be interesting to see what he does when given the canvas crafted by Peter Jackson and the universe inhabited by the equally endemic characters of JRR Tolkien. If it’s anything like this amazing masterwork, the two-part Hobbit will be another item in Del Toro’s list of favorites. And what an impressive collection it is.


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Sunday, Nov 2, 2008

In Troma’s world, it takes all types. Where once the mighty Manhattan madhouse of independent art used to simply shuttle out its own perplexing pictures for a VCR hungry fanbase, the last two decades has seen more outside the offices distribution than direct creative contributions. Of course, there’s no real reason to complain about such a business model. As a result, we were treated to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s classic Cannibal: The Musical, Giuseppe Andrews’ Trailer Town, and Jenna Fischer’s Lollilove. After a while in the commercial morass, concentrating on the luminous epic Poultrygeist, Troma is back bringing the unsung and uncelebrated to the masses. In the case of the two DVDs discussed, both fall firmly into the company’s corporate ideology while reestablishing Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Hertz as the most important names in indie filmmaking today. 


In the case of our first film, it’s sometimes safe to say that most moviemakers are just plain nuts. They look around at the rest of the breed, making cinema about important subjects or personal obsessions, and they just go ape crap. It’s not enough to make a plain old comedy or a standard horror flick. No, for them, it’s a process of tapping into the darkest, most disturbed resources of the cerebral cortex and pulling out a plumb peculiar motion picture pie. This is clearly what happened when writers/directors Adam Deyoe and Eric Gosselin decided to express themselves, cinematically. Responsible for such odd sounding fare as The Mental Dead and Street Team Massacre, the art-oriented schlock meisters at Troma are treating us to their gay Bigfoot epic Yeti: A Love Story.


That’s right - Sasquatch is a homosexual and worshiped by a cult run by ex-monk Raymond. Sending out his pretty young members to lure fresh man meat to his compound, he offers up sexual sacrifices to the beast in exchange for…well, that’s never really clear. Anyway, when a group of local college kids head out into the woods for a combination camping trip/sarcasm-fest, they run smack dab into Raymond’s ridiculous sect. Adam becomes the Yeti’s longtime companion, while Dick is seduced by a horny faction member. Soon, a local priest lets Emily know that she is the chosen one, able to bring down Raymond and his gang with a crossbow. Oh yeah, and a bumpkin named Sex Piss is hounding these ‘city slickers’ from one side of the boondocks to the other.



With dialogue that sounds like it was made up by morons making fun of other idiots, and an alternative lifestyles theme that is simultaneously both provocative and retarded, Yeti: A Love Story is an undeniably unsane treat. It lilts along on ambitions so outsized it can never succeed, and yet finds a fresh and often funny way of trying to make it happen. The script by co-directors Adam Deyoe and Eric Gooselin (with some help from Jim Martin and Moses Roth) offers up such tasty bon mots as “Yetis are a myth, like leprechauns…or tomatoes” and “A fraternity is not a ‘frat’. After all, you don’t call a country a…”, but befuddled quips aren’t the movie’s only madness. Along the way toward the eventual interspecies erotica, we visit Tentacle Boy, a side show attraction, watch as one lost camper runs head on into every escape cliché in the book, and scratch our skulls over the massive paperwork required by local law enforcement. 



Certainly we are in the presence of regressive genius, or intellectualized inbreeding. Deyoe and Gosselin may not have a solid cinematic sense (this is point-and-shoot camcorder creativity at its best), but what they lack in lame mise-en-scene, they make up for in bad-ass weirdness. Yeti: A Love Story is the kind of unassuming entertainment experience that catches you off guard time and time again. Just when you think you’ve figured everything out, a couple of characters will battle to the pseudo-death in a police station bathroom, organs and blood flowing as the notion of false finales plays over and over. Similarly, the gay undercurrent is given a riotous RomCom sheen, our man/monster dynamic sounding suspiciously like Hollywood’s typical treacle processed between a guy and some goon in a gorilla costume. Funny, freakish, and often foaming at the frame, Yeti: A Love Story is like a case of motion picture rabies. Only several shots to the solar plexus will cure you.



Speaking of Tinsel Town tripe, the insider satire has always been one of the artform’s greatest gravy train derailers. Nothing sets studio suits ablaze quicker than talent that tries to bite the hand that mishandles it. Making fun of the movie business itself is like shooting fish on a firing range, or mocking Britney Spears’ lack of panties. It seems simple enough, until you look the concept squarely in the short hairs. Cyxork 7, a bizarre-o gob in the face of all that film production stands for, looks initially like a sharp stick in the lens by longtime industry insider John Huff. But after looking over our co-writer/directors IMDb credits, he appears awfully worked up over a few episodes of The Night Stalker, and an extended stay on CHiPs.  Still, whatever crawled up his keister and cranked him over, the results are a hilarious and often insightful directorial dressing down.


The latest installment of the sci-fi franchise Cyxork 7 has decided on some cinematic gimmickry to make the series profitable again. First time feature filmmaker Angela LaSalle is in way over her head, and with a looming earthquake predicted, she hopes to wrap her efforts to take advantage of the natural ‘production value’. Of course, she is having an impossible time with her cast and crew including an angry German cinematographer, a boyfriend/assistant who keeps rewriting the script, a pair of fanatical web-heads who are responsible for the original screenplay, various ancillary a-holes, and the ever-loaming presence of b-movie maverick Clever Bill Emory. But it’s Kommander 88 himself, Rex Anderson, who is causing the most concern. Thanks to his harpy of a wife, he refuses to follow LaSalle’s artistic vision. It’s enough to destroy the project before Mother Nature has a chance to do it herself. 



With a wonderful cast perfectly in tune with his tirade, and a subtext that suggests the chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out aspects of celebrity, Cyxork 7 is something quite unexpected. While Troma can treat us to movies that are entertaining and unusual, ‘thoughtful’ isn’t a word often used in connection with Lloyd Kaufman and company. This is not to say that all of their output is single digit IQ oriented, by Huff’s Hollywood hatful of hate is smart, daring, and as acerbic as a retired film critic. Jaded isn’t a strong enough term for this film’s view of the business, and the media as depicted has become so cynical, it aims lower than the lowest common denominator. From the moment we see the raised middle finger of a CNN style corporate logo, we know exactly where Huff is coming from.



This is a dense, determined indictment of an artform that’s lost its way. Nothing is sacred: the Internet geek goon squads are portrayed as whiny slackers that think they know better but actually end up more misguided than the moviemakers; Infotainment TV is portrayed as a series of shock value soundbites mixed in with “why aren’t I famous” snatches of self loathing; movie stars are made out to be self-centered and insecure while everyone around their periphery - from the DP and F/X crew to a pregnant spouse - thinks they can direct. Perhaps the best moment arrives when young gun executive Clever Bill Emory arrives to blow up the production. His dialogue, a combination of schlock horror successes and nonsequitor admonitions, is so inspired you wish he was onscreen more than a single scene.



A lot of Cyxork 7 plays this way. When overwhelmed documentarian Angela LaSalle sits down to dinner with her leading man Anderson and his shrewish wife, the emotions registered on her defeated face are simply stunning. Similarly, when star Ray Wise goes into full smarm mode, he makes Bruce Campbell’s clueless chutzpah look like chinbone child’s play. As with any look at a corrupt business from the inside out, Huff (with script help from Andreas Kossak) tends to forget that we, the audience, aren’t as familiar with his farcical targets as he is. And when the last act disaster actually happens, the film can’t help but turn over into something standard and formulaic. But that’s only five minutes out of an otherwise blistering 90 minute beat down. While you may not always laugh out loud at what Cyxork is saying, the skewered sentiments are always crystal clear. 


As with all Troma DVDs, these two films are fleshed out with some wonderful added content. Both offer up insightful full length audio commentaries (Cyxork, naturally enough, being far more serious than Yeti‘s), and massive Making-of featurettes. With the Bigfoot gang, we are treated to nearly a dozen short films and trailers, while on the sci-fi side of things, there’s a wonder selection of interviews and festival appearances. Naturally, our corporate sponsor has to get into the act and offer up a collection of their own merchandising come-ons. Yet by supplementing each entry the way they do, Troma teaches us about the fine (and seemingly dwindling) art of true independent filmmaking. It takes all kinds, and all temperaments, to turn out even the oddest piece of celluloid.


In the next few months, we will be treated to a literal treasure trove of new digital distractions. Old favorites like Combat Shock will get a much needed technological make-over, while advertised treats like Coons: Night of the Bandits of the Night threaten yet another trip into the tried and true toilet and trash motifs that made Troma a three decade old icon. And the best bit? Who knows what new classic the company will unleash on an unsuspecting fanbase. Where once it seemed dark and desolate, the future looks bright for Uncle Lloyd and his lunatic fringe. It’s safe to say that Troma is back - not that it really went anywhere in the first place.


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Saturday, Nov 1, 2008

It holds a sacred place in the science fiction fan’s heart. It’s also the source of much engorged geek consternation. Science aside, the narrative joys and plotpoint illogic of time travel has fueled a great deal of future shock cinema. From assassin androids traveling to the “past” to erase the human responsible for their eventual destruction to present practitioners running through history rewriting the record book, the notion of messing with space and chronology has delivered a fair amount of speculative sturm and drang. For many, one of the best examples of the genre is The Final Countdown. It’s ‘world at war’ storyline seems to avoid many of the pitfalls while supplying a good amount of realistic revisionism.


While on maneuvers in the Pacific, Captain Matthew Yelland receives civilian observer Warren Lasky on his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Under strict orders from his boss, Mr. Tideman, Lasky is supposed to observe, then report back to the mysterious man responsible for the vessel’s design. This bothers Air Wing Commander Richard Owens a great deal. After passing through a freak storm, the Nimitz suddenly finds itself lost in time. The year is 1941, and the world is in chaos. In fact, the date is December 6th, one day before the Japanese attacks and destroys Pearl Harbor. Thus, a quandary is created. Does the Nimitz and its crew prevent the surprise ambush, thereby rewriting history? Or do they let events play out, recognizing that any interference could condemn their own existence? Over much onboard handwringing, a surviving Senator and his daughter may also play an important part of the overall equation.


A prime example of enthusiast devotion circumventing some dated cinematic approaches, The Final Countdown is one of the best examples of the “what if” genre ever attempted. And because of its subject matter, it’s also one of the most frustrating. For those with a knowledge of America’s battle-weary past, the concept of a modern aircraft carrier arriving in the Pacific in time to stop the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is just too good to be true. A whole set of futuristic free associations come from the juxtaposition of contemporary technology with 1940s fighting power. Once the Japanese had been defeated, would Germany have been far behind? Would we have needed the A-bomb and millions of deaths to finally stop the Axis rampage, or could a group of misplaced modern warriors wipe out war once and for all? Or maybe, interference would have aided in a Nazi triumph?


It’s this sort of speculation that makes movies like The Final Countdown work, and for a while at least, actor turned director Don Taylor indulges them. A true Tinsel Town journeymen, the filmmaker responsible for everything from a musical version of Tom Sawyer to the first Omen sequel has a wonderful way with actors. He brings out the best in such top flight talent as Kirk Douglas (Yelland), Martin Sheen (Lasky), James Farentino (Owens), Charles Durning (the Senator), and Soon-Teck Oh (an enemy prisoner). Their seriousness and sense of purpose really drives the authenticity of what could have been contrived and rather unrealistic. For those who like action and effects however, The Final Countdown is sort of a let-down. Indeed, in those pre-CG days of 1980, the aerial dogfights and ship to shore spectacle can feel a tad…antiquated?


But thanks to the cooperation of the US Navy, which went out of its way to help the production, and Taylor’s no nonsense cinematic approach, The Final Countdown succeeds. It may be more provocative than thrilling, and does raise questions that the otherwise solid script (a group effort by four separate writers) fails to fully address, but it’s the internal mechanisms, the ability to wonder about the effect on history - and consequentially, our current global situation - that really sell the situations. Tempers may flare and scenery might occasionally get chewed (with Douglas, Sheen, and Farentino around, that’s a given), but Taylor’s matter of fact filmmaking keeps everything comparatively in check. That’s why fans keep coming back to it even after nearly three decades. 


All of which makes this, the first blu-ray release from exploitation experts Blue Underground, both completely understandable and a tad curious. With a huge stockpile of material to draw on, The Final Countdown seems like a surreal choice for the fledgling format. Indeed, when one thinks of high definition releases, a movie from 28 years ago doesn’t typically draw one’s immediate attention. Sure, fans will celebrate, but getting the uninitiated interested will take something more than definitive technical specs. Luckily, the updated transfer is truly excellent. As part of the HD process, the 1080dp image is very strong. The colors are smooth and there is a decent amount of grain. There are nice black levels, a strong sense of detail, and an impressive “modern” feel to the filmmaking.


As for the aural aspects of the release, the lossless 7.1 DTS HD Master is excellent. The speakers get a real workout during the infrequent but effective battle scenes. There is also a 7.1 TrueHD and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround mix. The DTS is the best. When it comes to added features, however, the Big Blue U grabs a few extras from previous standard DVD releases and makes them available here. The full length audio commentary is interesting, but since we are only getting the limited purview of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (no other member of the cast or crew participates), it can be very dry at time. On the other hand, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who acted as Associate Producer and played a small cameo role) gets a chance to vent about his ‘horrific’ experience on the film. The pilots involved in the production also get a 30 minute featurette that is quite fun.


Sure, some will argue that the movie is nothing more than a dolled-up propaganda film for the US Navy, the magic hour shots of planes circling the Nimitz inspiring enough jingoistic joy to get even the most sensible citizen oiled up and aiming for their nearest recruitment center. And then there’s the whole space/time continuum argument, a bubbling brain buster than can have even the most learned MIT graduate crying cinematic “Uncle”. Still, for all its specious sci-fi friction and old school stuntwork, The Final Countdown is actually quite entertaining. It may not satisfy those still smarting from their own time travel trauma, but it does meet with the genre’s provisional motion picture aims. And on the new digital format, it’s never looked better.


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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008

What does it take to make a movie in 2008? A huge budget underwritten by a major Tinsel Town conglomerate? A nonstop parade of union-loyal crewmembers each striving to bring their contract-mandated best to the project while surreptitiously preparing for their next paying gig? A bevy of A-list actors who moderate onset professionalism and skilled performance with just a dash of limelight laziness? A high concept script? A director who isn’t drunk on his own ego (or an everpresent bottle of Vat 69)? Whatever it takes, Lloyd Kaufman didn’t have any of it a few years back. Hoping to bring his beloved indie shingle Troma back from the proposed post-millennial dead, he called upon his most reliable employment pool, and offered them a chance to do something very rare - work on a major motion picture release.


Thus last year’s sensational Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Created by Gabe Friedman, Daniel Bova, and Kaufman himself, this fright flick farce built on fast food and freak side showboating rejuvenated the lame duck label that, at one time, boasted the biggest roster of cult icons this side of a John Waters’ Dreamland reunion. With rave reviews coming from all manner of outlets - including oddball love letters from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Guardian - it should have been a massive Saw-sized hit. Instead, Kaufman claims conspiracy, stating flat out that theaters would not book his film because of his outsider stance and its “Unrated” status. Luckily, as with most criminally overlooked efforts, the digital format is here to save the day.


Our sordid saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.


If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ - and it most certainly is - then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s insane shoot for Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured by the roving camera of Andy Deemer and Jason Foulke. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.


Almost all the problems revolve around the all-volunteer crew and amateur cast ‘hired’ by Kaufman as a cost cutting measure. Living in an abandoned church and filming in a rundown McDonalds, everyone begins with high hopes. And when a few of the F/X fail to work, everyone is determined to hunker down and make things right. But soon, Poultrygeist as a production starts to go askew - very askew. No-names turn despots, and Kaufman’s consistently cranky personality explodes. Soon, threats are being leveled, insults are being hurled, and nerves are systematically frayed, folded, and mutilated. By the last day of shooting, so little of the previous good humor exists that people seem satisfied just to see something - anything - happen. 


It’s a telling reflection of the final film, one of the best things to ever come out of the New York nuthouse. Kaufman can call ‘fowl’ all he wants (or claim as he does on the commentary that many of the mistakes were fixed in post), but Poultrygeist is a great geek film made by and meant for film geeks. It’s a love letter to the genre by individuals who make macabre their entire life. It’s so blood and bodily fluid splattered brilliant that the freebie filmmaking assistants should be complimented, not cursed. Sure, as the alternate narrative track insists, more went wrong than right, but sometimes, a couple of thousand f*ck-ups can lead to something truly remarkable.


Elsewhere, the DVD argues for Kaufman’s often unglued approach to material. There is a deleted song for the character Humus that definitely should have been left in the film, and several of the Troma titan’s self-proclaimed “film lessons” often come across as stand-up comedy routines. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, it’s offered to support the supposition that art often comes from the most messed up of minds and motives. The concept of creating a Toxic Avenger like epic with a group of individuals surviving on naiveté, guts, and far too many stale cheese sandwiches may seem like a pie in the sky suggestion. But if Poultrygeist can make it work (albeit in a rather painful manner) why can’t other independent filmmakers?


Of course, the answer is obvious - few in the post-modern motion picture world have the kind of dedicated demo that Kaufman and company possess. For over 35 years, they’ve delivered the slapstick splatter that directors like Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez have built their entire career upon. Luckily, instead of its swansong, Poultrygeist suggests that Troma is just getting back into the ball game. As this amazing DVD set illustrates (and it’s a limited edition offering, folks, so get while the getting’s good), you don’t need Hollywood’s overinflated sense of self - and mega-multi-millions - to crank out something significant. All you really need is the voice of the people, and Poultrygeist has that in offal-accented spades.


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Tuesday, Oct 28, 2008

In the world of horror, you either “get” Lucio Fulci or you don’t. After starting his career in Italian cinema as a genre jack-of-all-trades (moving from comedies to westerns to musicals), he found himself hated by his homeland when he made the scathingly anti-Catholic Don’t Torture a Duckling (which hinted at the whole “priest-pedophile” issue years before it made headlines). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States know it, Zombie) refurbished his box office clout, turning Lucio into one of the most recognizable international brand names for excessive gore epics.


Zombie was followed by The City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), a notorious bloodbath featuring young women vomiting up their guts and a man getting an industrial drill thrust through his head (all witnessed in loving close-up). Toward the end of his career, he was accused of repeating himself (The House by the Cemetery) or creating low budget, incoherent junk (House of Clocks, Cat in the Brain). Right in the middle of it all was the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, the often misunderstood and named The Beyond (or The Seven Doors of Death or And You Will Live in Terror: The Afterlife). It combined the guts and grue of Fulci’s newfound fondness for flesh rendering with a hyper-stylized visual flair and somber, sullied southern overtones.


In the film, Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative and moves from the big city to the Big Easy to start anew. When one of the workmen helping to refurbish the place has a horrible accident, it seems to portend terrible things to come. A plumber named Joe is attacked and killed in the basement, and a long dead corpse is discovered. Joe’s wife dies of an accidental acid bath to the face. Then Liza runs into a blind girl named Emily who warns her about the inn’s haunted past. More gory accidents occur.


Soon it is learned that sixty years before, a warlock named Schweick lived in the lodge and occupied room 36. The hotel was apparently built over one of the seven gateways to hell, and the strange sorcerer was either working to keep it closed…or trying to find a way of opening it. With the help of a local doctor and an ancient book, Liza must discover the truth about the “doors of death” and face down evil before the dead walk the Earth and plunge the planet into a nightmare world of malevolence.



Over the twenty or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult following that champions this film and voices its frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually available in. For a long time, the only way to see this Fulci flick was to rent or buy an abysmal, pan and scan full screen edit job with the strangely suggestive title The Seven Doors of Death. Minus most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film even more disjointed with random cuts, Seven Doors was the stupid remnant rabid Fulci fans had to dig his or her claws into. Now thanks to Grindhouse Releasing, who provide the film a new DVD package, a whole new generation of horror mavens can discover what so many have pined over for so long.


The Beyond is indeed brilliant. It is also an incoherent, messy combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative gothic touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, getting better with multiple viewings as familiarity lessens the startling goofiness of some of the dialogue and dubbing. It is a film that is far more effective in recollection than it is as an actual viewing experience.



As with all pathways to a Roman roundelay, all Italian horror roads lead to zombies: slow, dull witted, seemingly nonchalant members of the living dead who are more sedate than scary. Indeed, Fulci is not out to make his flesh eaters visions of cannibalistic evil. In some ways, the reanimated corpses in The Beyond are like plot point speed bumps, ambulatory path blockers that mandate the characters maneuver around or circumvent them in order to advance the storyline. They are never menacing, never seen munching on arms or even breaking a sweat.


The ocular obsession of Italian filmmakers are another issue altogether. Speaking of peepers, Fulci does have his own unique fixations, fear fetishes if you will, that get overplayed and exaggerated in The Beyond. He must have had some blunt trauma to the eyeball at some point in his life, or a desire to deliver said, since he is absolutely obsessed with removing the gooey sight orbs from out their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them.


And then there’s the gore. If there is a chance to feature the inner workings of the human body in all their claret giving grisliness, Fulci will provide untold moments of chests bursting open, guts flowing like Vesuvius, and wounds gaping like waterless goldfish. A gash is not just a cut; it’s an open pipeline to the human circulatory system. When something bites or bashes someone, it causes untold internal hemorrhaging that always finds some way to spray out and spill all over the surfaces.



As part of this new DVD set, Grindhouse gives us insight into the entire production. Those who own the previous Anchor Bay-distributed edition may recognize a couple of these intriguing added features, since it was Grindhouse who handled the original restoration and pulled together the ample bonuses. There is an anecdotal commentary track featuring stars Catriona MacColl (Liza) and David Warbeck. They loved their experience on the film and working with each other and Fulci (apparently, not all actors have the same response) and their narrative is filled with jokes, insights, and honest reactions to the movie. There is also a rare onset interview with Fulci (engaging), a lost German pre-credit sequence shown in full color (nasty!) and liner notes from horror journalist Chas. Balun. They provide a plump set of supplements, especially for those new to the film.


In truth, all The Beyond  wants to do is wallow in lurid disgust until the organs offend you with their over-the-top gore and then add a scene or two of inspired visual poetry to offset the smell. Fulci is going to beat you over the head with the clots and sideswipe you with the sinew. Fellow foreigner Dario Argento creates dream imagery we can relate to, attaching the nightmares of childhood into the real world reality of adults to disturb and unarm us. His hallucinations may seem as intangible as Lucio’s, but somehow he manages to fuse tone and texture together to create a truly unnerving experience. Fulci is all about the fester, the feel and pong of rotting flesh. Once you’ve sampled The Beyond‘s repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it’s time to serve another heaping helping. Of course, Fulci and his fans are always sated.


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