Snap Into Some Synapse Blu 1

Within the ongoing democratization of the media, DVD remains a formidable founding father. While the VCR can take credit for turning the home video market into a viable commercial commodity, it was the advent of digital, and all the surrounding technologies, that turned an artform like filmmaking into something akin to an everyman endeavor. Another benefit from this boon was the advent of the niche distributor. Something Weird Video introduced exploitation to a generation far removed from the Friedmans and the Novaks. Blue Underground celebrates horror both here and (most notably) abroad. And then there is Synapse Films, scouring the globe for the forgotten, the unfortunately marginalized, and the needs to be rediscovered and considered. Their catalog contains a stockpile of sensational (and sometime, surreal) offerings, each representing a missing piece in the motion picture puzzle.

This time out, we get a quartet of exemplary efforts. First up, Rocky Balboa’s Russian nemesis morphs into a ass-kicking spy in the action epic Red Scorpion. Then, Spider-man‘s Sam Raimi helps out a group of friends who want to make a Manson Family themed revenge flick with the oddly named Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except. Hammer’s house of stellar scares returns with another of its early ’70s gems, Twins of Evil, and then the entire grindhouse era is celebrated with a terrific collection of trailers (under the 42nd Street Forever label) making their first visit to Blu-ray. While the format update may be necessary for purists of all distinguishing tastes, the truth is that these titles are a testament to the power within preservation. Let Criterion worry about past masters. It’s companies like this that make the medium, and its man of the people perspective, all the more meaningful. Let’s begin with some super-soldier on Soviet splatter:

Red Scorpion

When anti-Communist rebel forces threaten a Soviet friendly government in Africa, the KGB send their Spetsnaz-trained agent Lt. Nikolai Rachenko (Dolph Lundgren) in to kick some ass. Once he arrives, and sees what the pro-Red soldiers are doing in the name of maintaining the status quo, he switches sides and helps the dissidents. Chaos ensues.

When you think of late ’80s action films, what are your first impressions? Excessive violence? Rampant bloodshed? Single syllable dialogue coming out of the mouths of actors more prone to developing their pecs than their acting chops? How about the ridiculous cultural and political potshots taken at ideologies and philosophies from other countries in the world? Low IQ plotting? Guilty pleasure perfection? Well, Red Scorpion has all of this, as well as finely tuned stunt set-pieces, graphic make-up F/X and a likeable, lumbering, laughable lead performance by the always amazing Dolph Lundgren. Directed by good ol’ Joe Zito, who gave Missing in Action, The Prowler, and the brilliant Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter their zip, the film is fun, foolish, and above all, forgettable. It’s also got a legacy linked to the troubles in South Africa (Warner Brothers pulled out of its distribution deal when the production ‘violated’ the ban on associating with the country’s Apartheid government) and a budget that ballooned to more than twice its original cost. Still, as a slice of Reagan era excess, it’s a full throttled treat.

(This Blu-ray version of the title contains a wealth of extras, including a wonderful commentary track, footage from behind the scenes, a few intriguing interview featurettes, and trailers/TV spots)

Thou Shall Not Kill…Except

Sergeant Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) has just returned from Vietnam and he is still feeling the effects of the War. When a group of goofy hippy maniacs invade his small town with murder on their minds, he decides to fight back. Targeting their leader (Sam Raimi), Stryker and his pals begin an assault destined to “break the laws of both God and Man.”

After the massive success of the Evil Dead films, fans of Sam Raimi were looking for something, anything associated with the maverick filmmaker to rally around. Enter this oddball horror effort from friends Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker. Centering on a Manson like cult and featuring Raimi as the enigmatic if insane leader, this was a bottom shelf stalwart in many Mom and Pop video stores. While the cover art suggested something along the lines of Cannibal Holocaust/Ferox, what we really have is something akin to The Evil Death Wish. Our hero is a war vet who decides to take lawless matters into his own vigilante hands. The rest plays out like a child’s game of War with some effectively gruesome gore F/X. Raimi and his Renaissance Pictures pals may not offer up anything remotely close to subtlety, but the rawness and homemade atmosphere of dread is fairly palpable. Though it’s considered nothing more than a curiosity, there is a definitive cult following for this obscure film. Everyone involved would go on to bigger and better things. Still, Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except does what many direct to video nasties do best. It leaves a lasting impression.

(The HD format version of the film contains a pair of commentary tracks, the original Super 8 version of the film, a few intriguing interview featurettes, a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, and trailers/TV spots)

Twins of Evil

Maria and Frieda (Mary and Madeleine Collinson) are two sexy orphaned twins who come to live with their eccentric Puritan uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing). He is part of “The Brotherhood,” a society of witch hunters. Desperate to escape his religious fervor, Frieda falls under the spell of local “bad man” Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas). He practices Satanism and is a vampire. When she too is stricken, the rest of her family comes to her rescue.

Hammer was always known for being a bit more…ballsy with its horror icons. From blood and sex to a mind-blowing sense of melodrama, the British fright factory enjoyed indulging and exploiting the genre. as they did revering it. Sure, by hiring Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson as your leads, you’re letting your hand show, but when their cleavage is as fetching as theirs, who cares? (their voices, on the other hand, had to be dubbed). No, this is a rousing spectacle of mood and tone. We don’t see so much of the Hammer heaviness here. Instead, there is a sparse quality to the atmosphere, a sense of dread that can be borderline uncomfortable at times. Additionally, Cushing and Thomas as so good as both sides of the battle that we often wish the women weren’t so important to the plot. Naturally, we have to tolerate a Savile Row hero in David Warbeck’s Anton, but that’s the Hammer formula: eye candy for the audience, thespian expertise propping up the background. This, along with the equally excellent Vampire Circus, proves why Hammer has the upper hand over Universal and their ilk. They got, and gave, legitimate horror.

(This Blu-ray version of the title contains an interesting documentary on the Karnstein Triology, an isolated score and effects track, a deleted scene, a prop featurette, and trailers/TV spots)

42nd Street Forever – Blu-ray Version

At over three hours and containing 80+ trailers, this collection of previews from the by-gone exploitation/drive-in era offers a rare glimpse into how otherwise unmade and/or mediocre movies were marketed (and hyped) to clueless connoisseurs of such bait and switch cinema. Even better, there is a running commentary track that provides context and insight into each film featured. One helluva history lesson.

Before there was the Internet, before there were blogs and messageboards, sites specifically dedicated to rallying behind the latest upcoming releases and spilling the beans on all their spoiler-ific secrets, there was the trailer. Oh sure, we still have the one to three minute mini-movie ad today, but it pales in comparison to the brazen ballyhoo offered by these fringe filmmakers. As part of an ongoing series, Synapse Films has collected hundreds of these ads, allowing those too young (or too snooty) to experience them then to revisit them now. Sure, there’s the standard nudity and gore, name actors trumpeted while the rest of the always unknown cast plays second frame fiddle. But there’s also a lot of history here, especially in light of today’s reference heavy homage approach to film. From horror to softcore, blaxploitation to the most gratuitous of the grindhouse, this overview is amazing. You’ll literally have to lift your jaw off the floor once you see how producers distributed their wares way back in the days before home video. Indeed, if the VCR can be blamed for anything, it’s the end of such hard salesmanship. A must for any true film fan.

(This disc contains the aforementioned commentary track, which is not to be missed)