3-minute Blu-ray review: The Old Dark House (1932) NEW

Released on Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group, October 24, 2017

Specs: 1080p, PSM 2.0 audio. No region code or aspect ratio is stated on the packaging, but Amazon reports them as Region 1 and 137:1 respectively.

Running time: 72 minutes

Genre: High-Classic Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy)

Concept: After a landslide blocks a neglected country road, five storm-drenched travelers seek refuge in an austere old house populated by a monstrous butler and a pair of eccentric siblings harboring a secret that will soon endanger them all.

The Movie: It’s true that not a whole lot happens in The Old Dark House. James Whale fans expecting the grim horror of Frankenstein, the fantastical wonder of The Invisible Man, or the epic fairytale quality of Bride of Frankenstein may be disappointed at first. The film consists mostly of characters skulking around shadowy hallways, running through the rain, sneaking up creaky stairs, and complaining about the weather.

It sounds dreary on paper, but that’s why we watch the movie!

Under the visionary guidance of Whale, the mundane becomes frightening and the banal turns razor-sharp. Each character (and there are quite a few for a film restricted to one setting) is distinct and layered, and their collective interplay is a master class in sardonic humor. Some label The Old Dark House a comedy, but don’t imagine outdated jokes and corny comic relief. It’s a horror film that drips wit just as it pours rain and rattles thunder.

The cast might be the best ensemble of any horror film from the 1930s: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Eva Moore, Lilian Bond, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey, and the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, whose every line is a quotable delight.

My only real criticism is the abrupt ending, though that hardly makes it different from other genre films of the time. So sit back, fire up the Blu-ray player, and have yourself a potato.

[review continues below]

Video: The transfer is super clean. While a bit of grain should be expected from an 85-year-old movie, the print itself is in excellent shape. The contrast is quite good for the most part, though lowering the brightness on your TV a notch or two might darken a few shots that bear too much middle gray. Don’t dim too much, however, or you’ll miss out on the beautiful textures revealed by the new 4k scan. Yes, this release is far superior to any version previously on the market. That’s what you really want to know, right?

Late in the film, there appear to be a few missing frames, once at about 57:30 and again a few minutes later. Probably less than a half-second in total. I’m not sure if previous versions have this glitch, but I there’s no obvious splice or auditory pop, so it’s a minimal distraction.

Audio: There’s not much to report about a dialog-heavy movie with no music score that takes place in one setting. Overall, the actors’ voices come across clear and full and the sound effects are mixed well without overpowering the conversation. The thunder cracks are appropriately loud where intended to startle or punctuate the action.

Extras: Two audio commentaries; featurette; Sarah Karloff interview; trailer.

Verdict: Seek some much-needed shelter from the stresses of modern life at The Old Dark House.

Advertisements

3-minute Blu-ray review: The Dead Next Door (1989)

Released on Blu-ray & DVD by Tempe Digital, September 26, 2017

Specs: All Region, 1080p HD, DTS 5.1

Running Time: 78 minutes

Genre: Classic American Zombie (Dawn of the Dead, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things)

The Concept: A small band of soldiers travels from Virginia to Ohio in search of an antidote to a zombie plague, but they must first face off against an armed and hostile religious cult determined to stop them.

The Movie: DIY horror films are fairly commonplace today, thanks to the relative availability of HD cameras and editing software, the ease of sharing/streaming content online, and the rise of the found-footage genre, which eliminates the need for polished cinematography and time-consuming shot coverage.

Prior to those developments, however, making a film on your own was tough going. You needed expensive film stock, lighting rigs, and professional post-production equipment. You had to strike costly prints. Then you had to find a theater willing to show your film or a home video distributor able to mass produce it.

Enter J.R. Bookwalter, ambitious youth. In the mid-1980s, armed with a Super 8 camera, then 19-year-old Bookwalter spent four years shooting a surprisingly epic zombie-splatter adventure that was eventually released on VHS as The Dead Next Door. The film plays like an expanded universe entry in George A.Romero’s living dead franchise (imagine a Star Wars-type standalone that takes place between Dawn and Day of the Dead).

The Dead Next Door looks like what it is: a remarkable achievement in home moviemaking, replete with amateurish acting and inconsistent cinematography. The Evil Dead, the greatest DIY success of that decade, is far more polished and spectacular in comparison. Alas, while Bookwalter has carved out a niche career in the horror genre, his talents didn’t translate to the big leagues the way Sam Raimi’s did.*

[On the other hand, I’ll bet Bookwalter’s Robot Ninja is more fun to watch than Oz, The Great and Powerful.]

Video: The transfer is as good as the source allows. That is, the outdoor, wide-angle daytime shots look generally clean and bright. The close-ups are rather grainy, owing to the film being shot on Super 8, a poor format for subjects closer than three feet from the lens.

On the plus side, the color temperature is accurate and naturalistic. Conversely, there’s a fair amount of flutter present in some shots. It’s not easy to pull focus on an 8mm camera, either, and it shows at times. Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do about picture quality when reproducing 8mm film in HD.

Audio: It’s difficult to evaluate sound quality when the audio track is patchwork (some ambient, some looped). The volume is uneven, but I suspect adding compression to flatten it out would introduce a considerable amount of hiss.

Extras: Audio commentary, featurettes, outtakes (oddly, the DVD offers three commentaries, the Blu-ray only one)

Verdict: The film is intermittently effective but, overall, doesn’t hold up that well. While the gore FX are well done, it’s too ambitious for its limitations. I quite enjoyed the Romero-esque “American heartland” setting and sensibility, though, and the filmmaker’s swing-for-the-fences approach is admirable.

*Raimi ended up serving as executive producer on The Dead Next Door, perhaps seeing something of himself in Bookwalter.

2-minute Blu-Ray Review: THE SLAYER (1982)

Released on Blu-ray with DVD and booklet by Arrow Video, August 29, 2017

Specs: All Region, 1080p HD, mono

Genre: Unstable Female Protagonist Horror (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Rosemary’s Baby)

Story: Kay (Sarah Kendall), a painter haunted by harrowing nightmares and exhibiting neurotic behavior, is dragged by her husband and another couple to a beach house on a scenic but lonely island so she can clear her head. But once a storm hits and the murders start, it becomes clear their plan is backfiring.

The movie: The Slayer plays like a slasher flick until we realize Kay’s nightmares may be more than simply the product of anxiety. There are a couple of realistic kills, but the appeal of the film for me is the sense of desolation, both in the stark island setting and in Kay’s increasing paranoia.

The somber music score is unobtrusive but eerie, and the lack of dopey teen characters is a welcome change from other early ‘80s horror entries. If you’re looking for a polished, action-packed Hollywood production, this is not your film. If you dig the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic of micro-budget horror like I do and value creeping unease over spectacle, you may discover yourself a hidden gem.

Video: Not surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of grain, especially in the indoor scenes. Unless JJ Abrams wants to come along and restore each frame like he did with Phantasm, this is as good as it gets for independent productions shot on location without digital cameras or the controlled lighting of soundstages.

That said, there’s no apparent degradation of the original negative or print damage. As with other Arrow Blu-rays, you’ll discover all kinds of details and textures you never noticed before (like how hideous the characters’ sweaters are). The color EQ leans slightly toward pinks and oranges, but not in a way that’s distracting. Overall, this Blu is a vast improvement over any previous version.

Audio: What do you think this is, one of them fancy websites where they talk about compression and comb filtering and shit? The disk sounds fine. [disclaimer: my hearing is shot]

Extras: 2 commentaries, a documentary, interviews, a location visit, and the other fun stuff you always get with an Arrow release.

Verdict: Exactly what I expected

4-minute Blu-ray review: Count Dracula’s Great Love

count-draculas-great-love10

Title: Count Dracula’s Great Love

Starring: Paul Naschy & Haydee Politoff

Directed by: Javier Aquirre

Specs: 1973 / Spain / 83 minutes / 1.85:1

Blu-ray release: Vinegar Syndrome, September 27, 2016

The film

Count Dracula’s Great Love is basically a Waldemar Daninsky film with Dracula instead of the Wolf Man, using a familiar Paul Naschy set up: A bevy of beautiful, aristocratic-looking women traveling on a remote country road are forced to seek shelter when their stagecoach is disabled and their horses run off in a panic. In this film, however, it’s not the wealthy recluse Waldemar Daninsky/Wolf Man who offers the hospitality of his gothic estate but rather the wealthy recluse Dr. Wendell Marlow/Dracula offering the hospitality of a former sanitarium that only looks like a gothic estate.

If you’ve seen Hammer’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness, you know what happens next. And, if you know anything about the history of Spanish art, you’ll be aware it’s not known for its restraint. Which is good for fans of exploitation horror cinema, because Count Dracula’s Great Love offers plenty of lurid elements to keep us entertained through most of its 83-minute running time.

Strengths

Plenty of sex and violence, fluid camera work, a gothic setting, and a story that goes in unexpected directions during the final act.

Weaknesses

The same problem with nearly all early 70s Spanish horror films … pacing. A film should accelerate as it draws to a climax. This movie moves forward like your uncle drives; he’ll get there safely but probably could have passed on the right a few times to speed things up. Also, excessive sequences of women wandering around darkened hallways in nightgowns while carrying candelabras. That may be considered a strength, of course, depending on your fetish.

count-draculas-great-love9

Video

If you’ve seen previous iterations of Count Dracula’s Great Love on VHS or DVD, you will be stunned by the rich, warm colors and vivid contrast offered by this Blu-ray. Yeah, it’s grainy like a 70s exploitation flick should be, but that’s part of the appeal. There are a few minor warbles and print scratches within the first couple of minutes, but those quickly clear up. Here and there a few shots look fuzzier than others, likely attributable to the print, not the transfer. Overall, the video quality is quite pleasing and by far the best any of us have experienced with this movie.

count-draculas-great-love17

Audio

I’ve made it known in prior reviews that I have hearing loss and, therefore, am not the guy to discuss the fine points of sound mixing. This Blu-ray is mono anyway. The music and voices were all very present and punchy sounding, and the signal strength seems quite hot, because I had to keep the volume on 3 to avoid waking the neighbors at 1 a.m.

count-draculas-great-love2

Overall

Vinegar Syndrome did a bang-up job putting together a good-quality release with little to no fanfare. Let’s hope they issue more Paul Naschy titles in the future.

Final thought

Paul Naschy is the Tom Cruise of low budget Spanish exploitation horror. His acting ability and the quality of his films may be debatable, but the guy earnestly tried to deliver the goods every time and ensure his fans walked away satisfied.

My review of THE MUTILATOR Blu-ray

mutilator blu ray

by Alex Vorkov

The Movie

THE MUTILATOR (1984) is a fucking terrible film. That said, so is almost everything else in my DVD collection. As far as bad ‘80s slasher movies go, this one is pretty good.

Originally dubbed FALL BREAK, The Mutilator concerns a bunch of bored college kids who go to a beach house to get murdered. The first 35 minutes of the movie should be called Fall Break, because it wants to be a dumb teen comedy called Fall Break. In actuality, it’s an excruciatingly unfunny first act. A dumb teen movie, sans comedy.

Fortunately, director Buddy Cooper seems to have whacked his head at this point in the production and thought he was making a horror film. Either that or he realized just how much we all want these irritating fuckers to die, so he brought in FX wizard Mark Shostrom to kill them in satisfyingly gruesome ways.

The kills make your painful first-35-minute investment worthwhile. I won’t spoil them if you haven’t seen the film, but I will say there is one murder that is sure to make you squirm. I’d put The Mutilator next to THE PROWLER on the splatter scale. Certainly not in the Lucio Fulci class, but pretty gory for a throwaway slasher movie.

Plus: Great splatter; weapon variety; a good beach location

Minus: No likable characters; a gratuitous hairy chest; and the absolute worst theme song you ever heard in your life. Seriously, it’s like they took an adult-education songwriting class one night at the local high school and crammed every bad rock-pop cliché into one song. Remember how Kenny Loggins used to do all those catchy movie songs like Footloose and the one for CADDYSHACK? This song is to Kenny Loggins what I am to Wayne Gretzky. I mean, I can sort of skate in a straight line.

The Blu-ray

Sorry. No scans from the Blu-ray available yet. Enjoy shit shitty VHS screen shot in the meantime.

Sorry. No scans from the Blu-ray available yet. Enjoy this shitty VHS screen shot in the meantime.

I am so in love with Arrow Video I want to strangle it and violate  its corpse (we all have our own ways of showing affection). There’s are a lot of disappointing Blu-rays out there, but Arrow has a way of taking old, murky, grainy movies you thought were shot on garbage film stock by people with no talent and making them look like brand-new productions.

If you haven’t picked up an Arrow disk yet, their work is a revelation. The Mutilator suffered from a particularly bad pan-and-scan VHS dub back in the day, with many of its night shots lost amid a grainy, indecipherable haze. This Blu-ray is crisp and bright, and the contrast is excellent. The blood in the kill scenes flows a wonderfully vivid crimson.

You know what? In the context of micro-budget slasher films with bad acting and witless scripts, Buddy Cooper turns out to be a pretty good director. Now that we can actually see what he shot in the proper aspect ratio and on a 2k transfer, there are many well-composed sequences, the shot coverage all edits together nicely, and the cinematography is stronger and more creative than previously evident.

I’m not going to get into the audiophile stuff. I’m half deaf from playing drums for years and wouldn’t know the difference anymore. Suffice to say, the dialog, sound effects, and music are well mixed and up-front.

There are shit-tons of extras, including 2 commentaries and a lengthy making-of documentary as well as a booklet and reversible artwork.

The Mutilator is recommended for lovers of ’80s horror and slasher films and for people who like to torture themselves with godawful theme songs.

mutilator