Tricks or Treats? Ten Halloween Blu-rays That May Disrupt Your Life

by Michael Barrett

26 October 2016

The best of this stuff'll kill you.
Vamp (1986) 

These ten Blu-rays refurbish classic and sometimes less than classic films calculated to give you goosebumps. Intellectually speaking, some are closer to a speedbump. Which are which in this season of the witch?

Perhaps all these films take seriously Picasso’s observation that good taste is the enemy of creativity, but that doesn’t mean the absence of the former is sufficient to the latter. That’s why you have intrepid reviewers to sit through this stuff for you, Dear Reader, and separate the Tricks from the Treats.
  
Vamp (1986)

Two college buddies drive forever to the nearest city to hire a stripper for a frat party and, after spinning their car into some kind of vortex that dumps them in a weird neighborhood, end up in a strip club owned by an ancient Egyptian vampire performance artist. This low-budget affair was a tidy little moneymaker and pay-cable staple back in the day.

Dumb characters run around in a dumb plot that wants to be funny and scary and isn’t much of either, with one big exception. Grace Jones, who never speaks a word, is a palpably strange physical presence in wonderful get-ups. Too bad we don’t see more of her—although we see, ahem, quite a lot. The designer throws around broad swathes of neon green and red, perhaps in reference to the films of Mario Bava.

Notable extras are a new making-of and Richard Wenk’s short Dracula Bites the Big Apple, which many viewers will find wittier and more creative than the main feature. As with their other titles, Arrow’s package offers both a Blu-ray and a DVD.

Dead End Drive-In (1986)

In a near-future dystopia (the ‘90s), customers get trapped at trashy drive-ins that serve as concentration camps for jobless youth—and they like it! They get free rations of pot and burgers and spend their time breakdancing, strutting, and styling their hair, so what’s not to like? It’s an allegory for Australia and the welfare state, with only a single muscle-car rebel who wants to break out.

Another 1986 low-budget item, like Vamp, this one’s loaded with Day-Glo design and punk costumes amid surprisingly elegant camera moves. The designer was deservedly nominated for an Australian “Oscar”. These elements plus the cheeky themes make it an Aussie car movie that recalls The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Mad Max (1979) while being mostly inert, like The Great Escape (1963).

Even with these smarts, the actual story’s kind of dumb and drawn-out, though it has a cult of admirers. This widescreen 4K digital restoration is better than it’s ever looked. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith offers unpretentious commentary along with two other items directed by him: a TV profile of Aussie stuntmen, and a public-service drama on hospital fire safety that’s the most effective thing on the disc. Arrow’s package offers both Blu-ray and DVD discs.

The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)

When a student’s body is discovered in a park, the plot spirals into an elliptical collection of police procedures, courtroom theatrics and unreliable witnesses, all in stylish widescreen and scored lushly. Top-billed boytoy Helmut Berger doesn’t much appear before the last act, and most of his footage consists of brooding with or without his shirt.

Yes, we’re in Italy’s giallo country, down to the baffling and irrelevant animal title, but Duccio Tessari’s film is more interested in revealing a relatively sensible plot that comes together at the end. Thus, he avoids murder setpieces in favor of interplay amid a wide range of characters, and this is why commenter Alan Jones likes it. He discusses it in an off-the-cuff manner with Kim Newman, and there are new interviews with Berger (calling Lucchino Visconti the love of his life), Evelyn Stewart, and Tessari’s widow Lorella De Luca, who appears in the film.

The package has Blu-ray and DVD, with both English and Italian soundtrack options.

Trilogía de Guillermo Del Toro: Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth (1993, 2001, 2006)

Cronos focuses on an old man vampirized by an ancient device. His resourceful niece helps him. The Devil’s Backbone reflects the trauma of the Spanish Civil War through a ghost in a boys’ school. Pan’s Labyrinth, the darkest and most phantasmagorical, occurs in the aftermath of that war. All three films star Federico Luppi.

Drawing on fairy tales and history, Del Toro’s visually rich and conceptually brilliant films offer sympathy for children in horrifying circumstances. The first two titles reprise the extras from previous Criterion DVDs. The third film, new to the label, preserves an earlier commentary and making-of’s while adding new interviews with Del Toro and actor Doug Jones. It’s wrapped around a hardcover booklet with an intro by Neil Gaiman and packaged in cross-like box that’s classy and slightly unwieldy. For those still unfamiliar with these films, it’s essential.

Immoral Tales (1974)

Four stories in which willful women break taboos and suffer no punishment. There’s oral sex on a beach, and a devout young lady masturbating to Christ (as Madonna once said, he’s a naked man on a cross). The last tale features Lucrezia Borgia indulging incest, but it’s the third tale that deserves the headlines. Paloma Picasso (the artist’s daughter) plays the notorious Countess Bathory, who inspired myriad lesbian vampire stories by supposedly bathing in virginal blood. These women are “immoral” because they take more and more transgressive power upon themselves.

While much of the ‘70s Eurotrash is peanut butter and jelly, Walerian Borowczyk’s elegant anthology is caviar. Drenched in culture, it’s one long arty interlude at a very high level. A bonus version re-inserts the short segment he later expanded into The Beast (1975), part warped fairy tale, part elegant comedy of a dysfunctional family, and part pseudo-porn of an innocent girl who exhausts a monster. (Very arty with something for every pervert, that feature is available separately).

Immoral Tales includes a making-of and discussions of the director’s visual arts.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats

Two Italian films very loosely inspired by Poe’s story of a psychotic who walls up wife and cat. Sergio Martino’s 1972 giallo Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key prefigures The Shining (1980) in its picture of a sadistic blocked writer, but there’s a sex-reversal twist that probably counts as a spoiler if we say more. Anyway, at least one woman turns out to be a criminal mastermind who’s the writer’s match.

Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981) features an evil feline who kills random idiots via insanely absurd accidents while a local man (glowering Patrick Magee) records ghostly sounds from graves. Appropriating the male gaze, a female photographer (Mimsy Farmer) investigates and gets courted by a studly cop (David Warbeck) on a motorcycle.

The first items feels like a hothouse or hot-villa drama more than horror or giallo, while the second film presents Fulci’s typically off-the-cuff plotting in widescreen without getting as dreamy and surreal as his best efforts. In this very thoughtful package that includes Blu-rays and DVDs, both restorations look terrific and are offered with English and Italian soundtracks. Notably, the subtitles for the Italian versions aren’t mere transcriptions of the English versions’ dialogue.

Both films offer appreciations and interviews, while Fulci’s has a critical commentary. A book includes Poe’s story.


What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)

A teacher (Fabio Testi) carrying on with a student must clear himself of murder. For two-thirds of the movie, the title is an enigma, then it becomes vital as the story turns out to be a serious statement about contemporary Catholic Italy and its social hypocrisies, particularly as they make an impact on youth in general and women in particular.

This Italian giallo has all the classic qualities: brutal murder setpieces, witnesses who don’t quite know what they see, labyrinthine plot, baroque widescreen photography and vivid Ennio Morricone music. Whereas most of them begin strongly and fall apart, this is a rare example that begins in a routine manner with all the expected red herrings, then becomes more complex and involving until the end is surprising and ambiguously emotional. The unpleasantly graphic murders do have relevance to motive. The result is one of the most haunting examples of its genre.

Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight

Made one after another, Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972) feel like the same movie to judge by cast and crew. They’re above-average examples of Italian giallos, thanks to complex stories that do make sense and to nice widescreen photography and music that prominently features a female voice doing la-la’s. Of course both having something to do with witnesses who aren’t sure of what they see. The first pulls a kind of Psycho (1960) but breaks bold new ground by having the cross-dresser not be the serial killer. Does that count as a spoiler?

The second movie is really a piece of work, with one of the most bizarre set-ups ever for this kind of film, literally hallucinatory, and then the whole first half is one disorienting twist after another for our frazzled but dazzling heroine. It successfully surprises with the conventions it avoids and those it follows. Be warned that both films are violent, as is par for the course, and you must know that if you’re watching this kind of Halloween fare.

While most Italian giallos focus on the POV of male heroes who investigate murder, Luciano Ercoli starred his wife Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) in two rare woman-centered entries, and this (along with plot twists we can’t discuss) explains why some critics make the case for them as feminist giallos.

The second film comes with an expanded TV version. Both films offer serious, excellently researched commentaries by Tim Lucas, and both have English and Italian soundtracks. As with other Arrow discs, the set has both Blu-rays and DVDs.

Vampire Ecstasy / Sin You Sinners (1973, 1963)

The world of Joe Sarno, commonly called the Ingmar Bergman of sexploitation, features tight close-ups of angst-ridden neurotics who talk without facing each other, a general sense of isolation underlined by lighting and composition, and softcore gropings scored by percussion. It also concentrates almost entirely on women, with men as disposable pretty playthings in women’s often intergenerational power struggles for their sexual identity.

From his black and white ‘60s era, Sin You Sinners features a fortune-telling stripper whose Haitian dubloon gives her hypnotic powers. As she’s about to discard her latest boytoy, her timid daughter wants to steal mom’s mojo—and boyfriend. As Tim Lucas’ notes point out, other Adults Only movies in 1963 featured nudity without sex, while this movie does the inverse.

Shot ten years later in the fabulous production value of the producer’s German castle, Vampire Ecstasy dwells on the plottings and squabbles of lesbian handmaidens controlled by a vampiress (see the aforementioned Countess Bathory), one of whom also wears a hypnotic amulet. Plenty of nudity here, all in a claustrophobic foreboding miasma. Sarno’s wife Peggy did the sets and costumes, and her brother was the photographer.

Both are remastered until the image shines. The 1963 film is a scratchy, jumpy print, while the 1973 effort has excellent color design. Both “plots” are impressionistic random jumbles that rely on the passionate intensity of the players even for the most ludicrous events, and this balance between the absurd and intense marks Sarno’s tone.

The vampire movie has commentary and interviews with the German producer, who assures us everyone had a blast.

The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast (1963-1973)

For those with deep Halloween pockets and a taste for the exuberantly tasteless, this 17-disc box collects remastered “classics” from “the Godfather of Gore”, a Chicago-based indie filmmaker who burst upon the 1960s drive-in circuit by promising gore that Hollywood couldn’t. Blood Feast  (1963), about a killer’s sacrifices to Ishtar; 2000 Maniacs (1964), in which a Brigadoon-like Southern town butchers visiting Yankees; and Color Me Blood Red  (1965), about a crazy artist, feature resoundingly amateurish and phony gore (mannequins and butcher shop entrails) that’s still conceptually queasy.

Becoming increasingly comic and surreal, with creative expression a continual theme, The Gruesome Twosome (1967) features a mother-son duo, The Wizard of Gore (1970) a mad magician, and The Gore Gore Girls (1973) mixes Vietnam, women’s lib and Henny Youngman. These are “blood feasts” of contemporary attitudes and social signifiers, though surely nobody watched them for that.

Also from 1967, A Taste of Blood is a vampire story, while Something Weird is LSD-themed psychedelia that crosses into the avant-garde. From 1968, Just for the Hell of It and She-Devils on Wheels exploit violent delinquency, with the latter’s motorcycle girl gang inspired by Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Grrrl power indeed.

Also present, still unseen by your overdosed reviewer: Scum of the Earth (1963), a non-splatter drama; the pre-Dukes of Hazzard comedies Moonshine Mountain (1964) and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya (1971); and How to Make a Doll (1968).

These historically significant boundary-pushers are remastered to a startling shine for such cheapies and crammed with commentaries, making-of’s, a bonus documentary and other fripperies attesting to the affection these films have among connosseurs of transgression. A limited edition Amazon Exclusive of 2,500 copies in the US, another 2,500 in the UK. Note: The 1,000 edition box with two books, a vinyl single, an eyeball and barf bag sold out right away. Some folks want their gore deluxe.

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