[1 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Double takes are perfectly acceptable. Indeed, this is not your run of the mill Best of list. Look around the web (or in any of the still viable print publications) and it’s a safe bet that many, if not all, of these unusual titles fail to make the Top 10 grade. As a matter of fact, you could probably look from #11 to #100 and not find a single one mentioned. The reason why remains rather simplistic. SE&L is not overly impressed with pure technical merits. A stellar picture and perfect surround sound might be amazing, but when wrapped around the latest lame-ass Hollywood hack job, who gives a digital dung heap? No, what we like is quality – in presentation, in packaging AND in product. That’s why our 2006 tally of the best the home theater medium has to offer is just a wee bit…eclectic. We’d rather celebrate the unknown film in a barebones version than a tricked out work of limited likeability.
Truth be told, this list could be a lot bigger. As sales slack off and marketers grow manic over the lack of blockbuster sales, the smaller companies in the distribution game – Troma, Synapse, Subversive and Anchor Bay – have gone out of their way to track down obscure entries, flesh them out with an amazing array of contextual content, and provide them at a price that both aficionado and novice can support. Sure, some big league studio releases turn up here, but you probably won’t recognize the films featured. That’s the great thing about DVD – within its practical and portable format, a wealth of cinematic knowledge and appreciation can be gained. So get out your guidebook and be prepared to jot down a few of these filmic travels for future reference. After you’ve finished with that regular Tinsel Town treat, you can give one of these experimental excursions a try. You won’t be disappointed:
1. Tromeo and Juliet: 10th Anniversary Edition
Marking the second DVD go-round for this beloved Troma title, this double dip is still a significant improvement over the original digital presentation. As before, the Bard’s basic story of star-crossed lovers is fused with a scatological punk rock sensibility to create the first ever gross out version of a Shakespeare play. Perhaps more amazing than the awkward performances, bizarre-world found locations, plentiful gore, and abundant nudity is the number of unknown actors and crewmembers who went on to become famous fixtures in both Hollywood and the Indie film scene. Along with the typical Kaufman crew, screenwriter James Gunn (Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead) Will Keenan (Operation Midnight Climax) and current reigning b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon all found celebrity inside this insane iambic pentameter.
2. Street Trash: Special Two Disc Meltdown Edition
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam vet who takes his frequent homicidal flashbacks out on the surrounding populace, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition, and they weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud near perfect post-millennial package.
3. Christmas Evil
Overlooked upon initial release, Lewis Jackson’s You Better Watch Out is actually a minor masterpiece. Audiences were stunned when they learned that this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. The seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.
4. Cemetery Man
Cemetery Man is a most unusual horror film. Actually it’s not really a horror film at all. Certainly, it has nods to the normal macabre ideals—zombies and murders and the foul stench of death. Still, this is not really a chiller. Instead, it’s a thriller, in the most soul-uplifting definition of the word. It is a movie so bafflingly beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is poetry, cinema as a stunning visual feast. It remains one of the most important fantasy films ever made, one that shows the true power inherent in thoughts and imagery.
5. The Green Pastures
The Green Pastures is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South is misunderstood. Disney’s dilemma remains that, no matter how personable Uncle Remus is as a character, he is still subjugated by a segregated South. No such distinction exists in The Green Pastures - at least, not outwardly. This is a fantasy world composed completely of black people—from the biblical characters to the individuals spinning the yarn. Made in Hollywood, notorious for its mesegenistic view of minorities, one can read all manner of sinister significance in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of grace and devotion that constantly countermands the cruelty. It delivers the film and its prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and subjective.
6. Ganja and Hess
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive Big Apple play date, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut and re-released it as Blood Couple. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s version, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries and making-of documentaries, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. With all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.
7. The Loved One
Back in 1965, a movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold-hearted manner, vilifying religion with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions, and tweaking artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked-out fey momma’s boys, was scandalous stuff. Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones’ Oscar wins, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s mortuary satire to the silver screen. Mimicking fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (borrowing Strangelove‘s look and placing comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus), he took pot shots at several “isms”—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—creating a comic masterwork more or less unseen until this DVD release – 41 years later.
8. The Addams Family Volume 1
It goes without saying that The Addams Family is a product of its time. Viewed some 40 years later, the show is nothing short of luminous. It is superbly cast, brilliantly acted, and rebellious to a fault. What was weird and eccentric in 1964 is now nice and normal, the family’s main mantra of individualism and being true to oneself a coveted current cultural directive. It is easy to see what ‘60s audiences eventually dismissed about this wonderfully inventive comedy. The Addamses were radicals, rocking the boat of suburban conformity with their love of all things dark and dour. Thanks to MGM, and their initial DVD offering of the original black and white episodes, we can experience just how immensely entertaining this sadly underrated series actually is.
9. Wonder Showzen: Season 1 & 2
At one time, Wonder Showzen was the new “it” phenomenon – a corrupted kid-vid concept brilliantly realized and abstractly insane. It was Pee Wee’s Playhouse if that magnificent man-child Paul Reubens’ porn store persona had run the show, a sensationally sick perversion turned into a proto-pedophilic playtime. After a brilliant first season, some feel that creators Vernon Chatman and Johnny Lee went overboard in series two with their unabashedly political take on Hee Haw, Horse Apples. But the fact is that no other recent series has taken on the sacred cows and untouchable taboos of our pro-child society as astutely and caustically as this definitive dada-esque satire. Get both DVD sets now before some state wises up and bans this genuine genius effort all together.
10. Dust Devil: The Final Cut
In 1990, Richard Stanley’s Hardware was a heralded event in genre cinema. It had all the trappings of a classic. However, it was merely a minor success, earning little more than a considered cult following among rapid fright fans. As a result, Stanley found it difficult to get his next film off the ground; the metaphysical spree slaughter South African epic Dust Devil. Miramax promised all kinds of support, but after seeing a work print, they chopped it up and dumped it onto home video. There, it died a completely undeserving death. Thanks to an amazing new box set from Subversive Cinema, we finally get a chance to see Stanley’s visionary work, as well as a chance to visit his career since the entire Devil debacle.