Rich, Tasty Exploitation Cheese

With all the pundits and analysts saying that physical media is dead — and with major studios, between barely releasing their catalog gems and splitting up special features on A-list titles between retailers, helping to drive a nail into that coffin — it’s amazing how many smaller niche companies have risen like Phoenix from the ashes to deliver the goods. From Criterion, Twilight Time and Shout Factory to smaller outfits like Synapse and Severin, there are any number of companies putting out strong product, ranging from Criterion’s foreign and indie selections, Twilight Time’s burnished catalog titles and Shout’s TV, animation and music titles, not to mention the voluminous output of its horror imprint, Scream Factory. Who thought we’d ever see Blu-Ray versions of everything from Universal’s big-ticket Michael Caine adventure thriller The Island right down to effective cheapies like the upcoming Sleepaway Camp and Slumber Party Massacre? 

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What makes the Scream Factory model work is that they know that, no matter how gritty the title, there are die-hard fans of these movies and they don’t cheap out, typically delivering strong transfers, good audio presentations and copious extra features. A recent quartet of ‘80’s-era drive-in and home-video staples — all flawed and all equally fun —look less like the redheaded grindhouse stepchildren of the Hollywood system in Scream’s hands and more like the underrated gems they all are. Well, almost are.

 

The most expensive and highly-pedigreed of the group is 1980’s sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, a movie whose backstory is more interesting and engaging than the film itself. The movie looks great — despite some horrible period Spandex costumes — and showcases a fantastic villain in “Hector,” a frightening robotic creature which is half C-3PO and half the xenomorph from the Alien series. But everything else about the movie is a bust. It’s impossible to believe the then-60-something Kirk Douglas is a romantic match for Farrah Fawcett and even more impossible to believe that bad guy Harvey Keitel is not only given little to do but glower, but has had his entire performance overdubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice— in an American accent to boot. That it was all directed by Singin’ In The Rain’s Stanley Donen and written by British novelist Martin Amis only adds to the preposterous nature of the production, which was initially to be helmed by Star Wars production designer John Barry who was eventually forced off the film and died shortly thereafter of a heart attack. The movie looks great by 1980 standards and Hector, a life-size animatronic puppet which barely worked on set, makes for an iconic villain. But the film is a mess, which even the webmaster of the film’s fan page, Greg Moss, admits in his engaging commentary with critic David Bradley. Additional features include interviews with Roy Dotrice and FX designer Colin Chilvers, along with a vaguely racy deleted scene which shows Farrah Fawcett in her underwear.

Beast within

Better is 1982’s The Beast Within, a gruesome alien-invasion story which showcases some extremely grotesque (if occasionally goofy) transformation sequences, as well as a bunch of good actors who seem uncomfortable with the extreme nature of the story. Paul Clemens — whose commentary with director Philippe Mora is engaging and fun — plays a high-school senior who begins going through some uncomfortable changes in his life, both physically and emotionally as he discovers that his mother (Star Trek II’s Bibi Besch) had been raped by an alien years earlier and that he’s starting to look more like Dad by the day. The script, by future Fright Night and Child’s Play director Tom Holland (who appears on an audio commentary track of his own), is pretty simplistic — and given the amount of explicit violation we see at the hands of slimy alien creatures, pretty crass —but Australian director Mora has fun with the story, which plays more like an old AIP drive-in movie from the ‘70’s (complete with character actors like L.Q. Jones and R.G. Armstrong) than a modern-day slasher film. Tom Burman’s FX serve the story well — at least up until one shot of the mid-transformation Clemens, whose head looks like a painted balloon — and there’s good, oppressively swampy atmosphere throughout, but this roughie is probably not the best for date night.

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Even sleazier but more effective than The Beast Within is 1986’s Crawlspace, from Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, a cheapjack operation known best for their Stuart Gordon HP Lovecraft films than movies like Ghoulies and Trancers (they’d later morph into Full Moon Pictures, which became one of the first direct-to-video film companies). Crawlspace had a limited theatrical release and was effectively dumped to video, but despite its somewhat goofy premise — that kindly landlord Klaus Kinski is actually an old Nazi who has rigged his home up with giant ducts and vents from which he stalks his comely female renters — the movie is decidedly creepy, thanks in no small part to composer Pino Donaggio, best known for his work with Brian DePalma, and director David (Tourist Trap) Schmoeller wisely plays up Kinski’s deranged persona, which according to the energetic commentary, wasn’t much of an act. The film looks better than you’d ever imagine and the extras, including Schmoeller’s jaw-dropping short Please Kill Mr. Kinski (detailing his tempestuous relationship with the infamous star), are worth the purchase price alone.

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The best of the bunch is 1984’s Night Of The Comet, a breezy cross between The Omega Man, Dawn Of The Dead and Valley Girl. Out of all of the movies here, it has dated the worst — leads Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, as appealing as they are, cannot overcome their early ‘80’s Merry-Go-Round wardrobe choices — but is definitely the most fun. Sisters Stewart and Maroney miss the passing of a comet over Los Angeles one night, making them two of the only survivors to survive a cataclysm which has turned everyone, including their parents, into red dust. They’re forced to do battle with punks, jerks and zombies, though writer-director Thom Eberhardt never really explains the zombie angle, even after introducing mad scientists Geoffrey Lewis and Mary Woronov, who are ostensibly trying to save what’s left of the world, into the mix. The story is all over the place and the zombie element could be significantly scarier. But the leads are engaging — particularly Robert Beltran as a trucker who just happens to turn up at the radio-station where the girls are hiding out — and Eberhardt, shooting the empty streets of downtown LA (Stewart and Maroney mention in their audio commentary that they were forced to film on Christmas morning to get shots free of traffic) with crazy red filters that cement the film’s off-kilter New Wave vibe. The disc is packed full of extras, including interviews with almost the entire cast, along with make-up effects creator David B. Miller, and it’s clear that everyone had a good time making the film, which comes through in the final production.

 

Between killer robots, alien spawn, Nazi stalkers and Valley Girl zombies, there’s something for everyone in this recent batch of Scream gems, with ‘80’s gore classics like Evilspeak and Night Of The Demons and more recent cult thrillers such as Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps on the horizon.

You can purchase The Beast Within directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon

You can purchase Crawlspace directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon

You can purchase Night Of The Comet directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Saturn 3 directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

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