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by Bill Gibron

6 Oct 2009

For Walt Disney, it was the realization of a dream, nearly a decade of wondering if his already successful short film style could actually be expanded to feature film length. While history would argue over its claims of being “first” (Russia and Germany might have something to say about it), it remains the beginning of a movemaking mythology that continues to this very day. Without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there would be no House of Mouse, no Happiest Place on Earth, no Hannah Montana or Jonas Brothers. Had it failed, had it really been “Disney’s Folly”, it would have sealed the fate of the fledgling studio forever. Instead, it opened up an entire artform to a new and appreciative audience - and now modern viewers can experience something similar with the brand new Blu-ray release of this undeniable cartooning classic.

But the final product was not the end result of some manner of presto-chango magic - no matter what Tinkerbell and the rest of the company’s mascots argue. For several years prior, Disney was himself overseeing a massive preproduction that utilized thousands of ideas, sketches, character interpretations, and other sources of inspiration which were then tapped into, twisted around, and frequently discarded. Much of this material was lost over the course of time, but what remains has been carefully cataloged and preserved in Disney’s own massive archives/library (over 60 million pieces, and counting). For the Diamond Edition release of Snow White on home video, Lella Smith, curator of the Walt Disney Animation Studios - Animation Research facility, opened the vaults to explain how things went from a famed Brothers Grimm fairytale to a make or break product for the upstart inventor of Mickey Mouse.

“There were lots of European artists involved initially”, Smith said in a recent roundtable interview celebrating the Blu-ray release, “Walt meet several of them during his travels abroad, and he brought them on to consult.” It was a painstaking process, one that involved a lot of design and redesign. “Snow White was original blond, almost a Betty Boop type,” she explains, “in keeping with the style of the times. Actors were also brought in so that movement and human qualities could be studied.” But don’t think for a moment that Disney used rotoscoping to create its characters (a process which sees animated cells culled from actual filmed footage of people). “The animators would be livid,” she laughed. “This was all hand drawn - meticulous and painstaking.”

Perhaps the most difficult element to realize, however, was the dwarfs. As far back as 1934, the studio was worried about how they would come across onscreen. “Walt sat down in a meeting,” Smith explains, “and in one afternoon, more or less defined and described what he wanted.” Hoping to inject some humor into the film, he hoped the little men would be easily identifiable and easily relatable to the audience. “Early names like ‘Wheezy’, ‘Jumpy’, and ‘Baldy’ give you an idea of what they were thinking,” she says, though early drawing showed gnome-like beings barely distinguishable from each other. Disney wanted the names to inspire the artists, and it wasn’t long before the now memorable characters of Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey were born.

Still the process took time. “From 1934 to 1936 - two full years - the animators fretted over the dwarfs”, Smith reveals, “with perhaps the biggest changes coming to Dopey and Grumpy.” Everyone loved the mostly mute, child-like creature with oversized ears and a heart to match - but he wasn’t always so loveable. “He was initially seen as an old man, bearded and insular,” she points out. Disney wanted him more fun loving and innocent. Over time, it was decided that Dopey would be younger than the rest, at least in appearance. There was a similar strategy with Grumpy as well. “He was initially seen as some bitter, angry guy,” she laughs. Over time, the animators chosen to ‘lighten’ him, to give him what Smith considers the biggest onscreen personality shift of any single facet in the film.

Humor was also important to Disney, and he had dozens of writers, most with experience from his Silly Symphony line of shorts, writing gags for the film. “The jokes were plotted like they were in silent comedies,” Smith outlines, “Walt would pay an unheard of $5 for each one that made it into the film - and this was the Depression, remember”. Of course, many didn’t make it into the final cut. “There were jokes with Sleepy more or less napping anywhere he could - a clothesline, a wash basin - and an entire sequence where the dwarfs combed their beards with a rake.” Entire subplots were also deleted to shorten the fretted over running time. One of Smith’s favorites, a sloppy soup eating scene, was actually animated but ultimately removed to quicken the film’s pace.

Such a painstaking approach definitely shows in the final product. For anyone unfamiliar with the 72 year old masterpiece, the story is simple. Snow White is the stepdaughter of a wicked, vane queen. When a magic mirror explains that the child is the fairest female in the land, Her Majesty gets mad and sentences her to death. Escaping her fate, Snow White ends up in the woodland cottage of seven dwarfs. After some initial trepidation, the little men take to their newfound charge. When the queen discovers that Snow White is still alive, she plots her demise. She poisons an apple, dresses up like an old beggar woman, and confronts the young girl. Sadly, she bites the forbidden fruit, fallen into a death-like sleep and is buried in a glass coffin. Only the love’s first kiss can cure her.

Considering its age, it’s reliance on then popular creative contrivances like slapstick and sight gags, and an almost operetta like use of the songs (“Music was VERY important to Walt”, Smith points out), some might consider Snow White dated. Past transfers have failed to fully exploit the gorgeous color schemes used and the new Blu-ray reveals details that even someone as familiar with the material as Smith was/is astonished by. “The process was so clear,” she states, “that you could see the fingerprints of the animators on the individual cells.” A massive clean-up, involving the placement of the entire film into a computer and the remastering of thousands of individual images, results in an experience so startling, so unbelievable in its artistic vision and home theater clarity that it inspired gasps - as well as a new found love for Walt’s efforts.

The film itself is indeed astonishing, the “every trick in the book” approach revealing scenes of stunning power (Snow White’s escape through the woods, the dwarfs’ final confrontation with the Queen/Witch) and undeniable humor (the superb “Silly Song” sing-along). You can see the attention to every facet of the filmmaking here - from the control of character to the desire to mimic old masters in the background plates and production design. What Walt wanted more than anything else was his animated feature to “feel” like a real film, to have the same emotional heft and dramatic reach of the quality live action titles of his time. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exceeded his wildest expectations. Instead of being an artistic albatross around his neck, it became the benchmark for a near perfect run of additional cartoon classis (Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia, etc.).

In addition, the Blu-ray overloads the viewer with vital behind the scenes information. Sure, there are games and other goofy diversions for the kids, but the best bits here include a commentary track by John Canemaker (very informative and enlightening), a chance to visit Walt’s first studio, Hyperion, a look at some newly discovered storyboards that suggest Disney was planning a Snow White sequel (!), and an in-depth overview at how the first commercially successful full length animated feature went on to change the entire face of the artform, forever. Indeed, Smith points out that many of the lessons learned on this film continue to be carried over to this day. “Snow White proved that realism and heart had a place in the genre,” she argues. “It would become the blueprint for every animated feature to come.”

And indeed, it did. In revisiting the film in the new format, it’s clear why Snow White was a success. It’s fresh and funny, similar in style to the shorts that were popular at the time while expanding and reinventing the notions of what makes animation work. It’s clever, and slightly calculated, made to highlight the talent it took to realize Walt’s dream. It even harkens back to the immigrant experience, giving recently arrived Americans a chance to see some of the visual beauty they were familiar with and grew up with abroad. As with any first, it has its awkward elements, and moments that stretch the boundaries a bit too far (the Queen’s transformation sequence feels like a run-through for Fantasia), but there’s no denying its place and providence as a true motion picture classic. “Walt wanted Snow White to his cement his legitimacy” Smith says. “Instead, it cemented his legacy.” And on Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why.


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.

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