Category Archives: Reviews

The Woman in Black (1989) Blu-ray Review

The Woman in Black (1989)

Most people know of the 2012 feature film The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. It was based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name. But the novel first found its way on to film through an ITV production that first aired on Christmas Eve 1989.

This widely loved film has not been well distributed. It was releases as a PAL VHS and later on a Region 1 DVD. Both these versions are long out of print although you can still find them. Thankfully, ITV has released the film as it should be on a Region B/2 Blu-ray. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the first printing. They have already run out and are doing a second run.

Story

The Woman in Black is a Gothic ghost story. The central character is Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) — a young lawyer in 1920s London. He has a wife and two small children. His boss sends him out of town to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman.

Once he arrives, he gets odd reactions from the locals. But no one tells him anything specific. Few people have even met her, since she was a recluse. One woman does show up at the funeral, but he is never able to talk to her.

At the house, he sees the same woman. But this time, he’s terrified. And when she approaches him, he runs into the house and locks the door. Then he turns on every light in the house and has a look around. Except for one room that is locked that will later be a major part of the plot.

He finds an old audio recording device and learns from the former owner that she is visited often by some unnamed woman. “Last night, she did not come until four in the morning. Then it was bad — a bad night.”

Eventually, he learns that owner adopted her younger sister’s bastard son. One day, the younger sister came back and kidnapped the boy. But they were both killed will traveling through the marsh away from the house. Now, whenever the ghost of the sister is seen in town, a child dies due to accident or illness.

The Ending — Briefly

Kidd has many terrifying experiences before a total breakdown. Eventually back in London, his assistant tells him that a woman who dressed as though she were in mourning was hanging around outside the office. This sets Kidd off again and he destroys much of his office in an effort to burn the last of the deceased woman’s things.

Later, Kidd takes his family on holiday. They are in a boat on a lake. The woman in black appears and a large tree falls on the family’s boat — killing them all.

Analysis

The ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that the ghost was known for causing the deaths of children. In the book, the protagonist doesn’t die — just his wife and child.

But I don’t think this much matters. It does finish out the plot in a fulfilling way. And all things considered, I’d rather be dead than haunted by this woman.

Otherwise, this film exemplifies what is best about horror. Even as I write this — having watched the film 5 times recently — I have chills. It doesn’t have many jump scares. It’s just the whole feel of the film. It’s overwhelming.

A big part of its success is due to the character of Arthur Kidd and how he is played by Adrian Rawlins. He’s likable and believable. He’s even a bit goofy at times like when he discovers the recording device. So everything he goes through really matters to me.

A Beautiful Film

It’s also a thoroughly well-made film. The sets are great. The exteriors are shot so as to edit well with the indoor shots. It’s also cleverly shot. A couple of stand-out moments are when the woman in black shows up at the house, she appears from nowhere during a single shot. Then, at the end, after she appears and the tree starts to fall, Kidd’s wife rises up in the boat to obscure the woman’s body.

It’s nice to see such care taken in a film. But it’s wonderful when it results in such effective storytelling.

Blu-ray Quality

The first time I saw this film was with a terrible YouTube print — probably not even as good as the original VHS release. But the film was shot on 16 mm negative with well-lighted sets. So I knew better video was possible.

There are two versions offered on this disc. There is the original 4:3 televised version and a 1.78:1 widescreen version. Both show some grain on the scenes with less light. And it can be a bit more pronounced on the widescreen version. But overall, the film looks great. And that’s especially true for the scenes that are most important.

The 4:3 version includes title cards between the acts, as the film appeared on television. These are removed for the 1.78:1 version so that it plays as it would in a movie theater.

The sound is presented in mono, but it is well mixed. The music and voices are distinct. It also includes clear and accurate subtitles.

Special Features

There aren’t that many extras with this disc. But I often think releases provide a lot of useless extras just to impress people. Seven short interviews are better than one long feature that puts them together in some cohesive way? Not really.

Apart from the widescreen version of the film, which is an extra I suppose, there are three extras.

Image Gallery

This is a minor feature. It consists of 34 images displayed over the course of one minute and 35 seconds. Some are rather good but this is nothing special.

Commentary Track

Commentary tracks range from excellent to useless to abusive. The track for The Woman in Black is good. It is hosted by writer Kim Newman. With him is Mark Gatiss of Sherlock fame. Both of them love the film and much of the commentary is simply them commenting on things they appreciate in the film.

For example, they note that what makes the big jump scare work so well is that slightly before we see her, we see her shadow cast on Kidd’s body. It’s the sort of thing you feel but don’t usually notice consciously.

They also discuss various aspects of the novel and how the film got made.

Andy Nyman is also included. He played Jack, the shorter law office assistant with curly brown hair. He adds some colorful stories to the mix.

Viewing Notes

For me, the high-point of the extras was a little 20-page booklet, The Woman in Black: Viewing Notes by Andrew Pixley. It goes through the original book, the play, this film, and the later one. It also goes into depth about Nigel Kneale and his approach to rendering it for the screen.

I highly recommend reading this book. You will learn some of it with the commentary. But if you want to know about how this film got to screen, you should really start here.

The Other Booklet

Along with the Blu-ray came a 24-page booklet The Woman in Black. It appears to have been some kind of promotional material for the film when it was released in 1989 — a press book for the media. There are even corrections on it. The first page says it will show at 9:35, but this is crossed out in red pen and “9:30” is written under it.

It provides basic information about the plot, characters, cast, and crew. But mostly, it contains short interviews with cast members Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, David Daker, and Pauline Moran. These are the sort of interviews that would today be extras on the disc.

But I don’t think it is officially part of the Blu-ray release. The booklet is too large to fit inside the case and it isn’t mentioned on the case. So you might get it or you might not.

Final Thoughts

I’m pleased to have this. The film is great and it rewards multiple views. It’s also a film you can show to older friends and family members since it is classic horror. It is, however, scary. I just showed it to my Stephen King-loving father and he was impressed — and frightened.

Sadly, it is only available on a Region B/2 disc. But if this gets you to buy an all-region Blu-ray player, great! I purchased it directly from Network on Air for just $21.23. The total shipping charge was less than what Amazon charges and it got here in a week! So they are a company you can trust (and I have absolutely no business relationship with them).

This is a fitting release for an excellent film.


Blu-ray image taken from Network on Air under Fair Use.

2020 Ozone Blu-ray Review

Ozone (2020) Blu-ray

Over the last few years, Tempe Digital has slowly been releasing their greatest hits on “ultimate” edition Blu-ray releases. In 2017, they released The Dead Next Door. In 2018, it was a beautifully restored (and fixed) Robot Ninja.

This year, Ozone gets the treatment with two different versions. The Standard Edition comes with the Blu-ray. The slightly more expensive Signature Edition also comes with a DVD and (while supplies last) an Ozone refrigerator magnet. Is upgrading to the Blu-ray worth the cost? Read on to find out.

2003 DVD Release

Each time that Tempe comes out with one of these releases, they face a bit of a problem: they’ve already produced excellent DVD releases. Ozone was released in 2003 and it was great. I’ve had it for years and I never thought, “I really wish Tempe would put out a good edition of this film” — as I have for far too many of my favorite films.

More than that, every time there’s a sale, I pick up a few copies of the DVD, which I give out like the micro-budget horror Johnny Appleseed. (I do the same thing with Kingdom of the Vampire.) If you are interested in my thoughts on the film itself, check out Every JR Bookwalter Film Ranked. I think Ozone is Bookwalter’s best film.

My one major complaint about the 2003 DVD release is it is slow. All my players really struggle with moving from selection to selection. Maybe this is due to my playing it on Blu-ray players. Regardless, this isn’t a problem with the new discs.

Audio and Video

I’ve gotten used to the look of Ozone over the years. It was shot on S-VHS-C, which might have been passable for broadcast at the time but certainly isn’t today. And the film is overwhelmingly shot in dark locations. So I figured what I was getting on the original DVD was about all that I could expect.

I was wrong. This Blu-ray version looks distinctly better. And the colors, which are really important in the film, are richer — fuller. I don’t know how to put it other than to say that it looks a whole lot better.

The sound is also better. The dialog is clearer and the music has more depth. It makes the DVD version sound mushy now.

Setup

There are a number of significant additions to the setup on the Blu-ray. First up is that Ozone gets subtitles for the first time — in English and Spanish.

This goes along with the standard English audio track in DTS-HD 5.1 and a Castilian Spanish dubbed in Dolby Digital. I seem to be in the minority of people who have no problem with dubbing — as long as it’s done right. And the Spanish dubbing is pretty good — up their with Italian films like Suspiria.

Of course, what’s most interesting about the Spanish audio track is that it allows interested parties to compare the sound designs for the film. For example, when Eddie and Mike are talking in their car, the crickets sound like they are all over in the English track. In the Spanish track, you only hear a solitary cricket now and then.

Commentary Tracks

There are also three commentary tracks included on this disc. First there is the 2003 commentary from the DVD with Bookwalter and James Black. It’s mostly interesting because of the enthusiasm that Black shows for the work. That’s also seen on the commentary track for Galaxy of the Dinosaurs. There are also some interesting story like Black’s concern that the bar extras (who had been drinking) were actually going to do him harm.

There is another track with Bookwalter alone from the 2003 release of the film as Street Zombies. This is a surprisingly good commentary. Not only does Bookwalter cram a lot of information into it, he does it in an amusing way. At times it seems like he is doing a stand-up routine. This commentary was not on the DVD release.

And finally, there is a new commentary with Bookwalter and Ross Snyder of Saturn’s Core Audio & Video. It’s generally the kind of commentary I like best — more or less an interview. If you don’t know much about the making of Ozone, it’s probably the best one to listen to first.

Sadly, the Blu-ray does not include a widescreen version of the film. But I won’t complain — at least as long as Tempe doesn’t release a widescreen version only on iTunes for another ten bucks! (They did that with Robot Ninja.) [See below]

Scenes

The original DVD release subdivided the film into 29 chapters. The Blu-ray subdivides it into 20. The first 5 chapters are the same. After that, the ones on the Blu-ray are kind of arbitrary.

Not that it matters too much but it would be nice to have shorter chapters since Ozone has so many notable scenes you might want to share with friends.

Extras and Special Features

Now things get kind of complicated. Or at least detailed.

Recycled Material

First, we have the stuff that is recycled from the 2003 DVD, although in many cases, it has been updated in some way:

  • Production Gallery: 5-minute video using all the production and artwork images.
  • Promotional Gallery: 6-minute video using all the promotional images (mostly shorts of magazine and newspaper articles).
  • Paying for Your Past Sins: 30-minute documentary about the making of Ozone.
  • Into the Black: 8-minute documentary about James Black. It’s odd though. There’s very little interviewing of Black in it.
  • 2003 Location Tour: 5-minute documentary with James L Edwards. Edwards is charming and it’s interesting to see the locations as they actually exist in context with each other.
  • Behind the Scenes: 7-minute behind-the-scenes documentary. In this version, you can choose to listen to Bookwalter’s discussion or just music.
  • Early Test Footage: 13-minutes of the footage that David Wagner shot before Bookwalter came onboard.

New Material

The following stuff was not on the original DVD:

  • Bloopers: This is 30 minutes of material. Normally, I hate this kind of thing. But it works as a kind of behind-the-scenes documentary.
  • 1993 TV News: 3-minute segment from local news on Tempe Video and Riot Pictures. (They misspell Mark Basko’s name.)
  • 1993 NewTalk Interview: 19-minute local talk show featuring Bookwalter and the Riot Picture guys, Bosko and Wayne Harold. It focuses on Riot more than Tempe.

Trailers

The Blu-ray comes with fewer trailers than the original DVD (there are more on the DVD that comes with the Signature Edition). It presents trailers that are currently available from Makeflix: Ozone, Robot Ninja, The Dead Next Door, Platoon of the Dead, and Poison Sweethearts.

Signature Edition DVD

The DVD features the original VHS version of Ozone. I don’t actually see any difference between it and the original DVD version. But to be honest, I haven’t looked in detail.

It too comes with English and Spanish subtitles. There is a Dolby Digital 2.0, production, and isolated music tracks. The production track seems to be the basis for the Spanish language dub on the Blu-ray. That is: it doesn’t sound as good.

The highlight of the disc is a commentary track with Doug Tilley and Moe Porne of No-Budget Nightmares — one of the few listenable film podcasts. They manage to be funny and informative. They are also highly opinionated in a way that doesn’t make me want to turn them off.

The film is divided into the same 20 chapters as on the Blu-ray.

Extras

The extras are all on the original DVD:

  • Ozone: Droga Mortal: 12 minutes of the film with Spanish dubbing. With the whole film now available in Spanish, this is just included for completeness.
  • 1992 B’s Nest Video Magazine Intro: Tempe used to put a little video magazine at the end of their tapes. Basically, they’re just commercials. This one is interesting in that it is produced by Bookwalter and Lance Randas (who is also Bookwalter). What’s up with that?!
  • Three other Ozone trailers:
    • Original 1993
    • Japanese 1995
    • Street Zombie 2003.
  • Other trailers:

Booklet

The Blu-ray also comes with an eight-page booklet with an article by Ross Snyder that puts Ozone into historical context relative to the films that went before and after. It’s excellent and well worth a read.

Additionally, Tempe has had some Ozone magnets produced and one comes with the Signature Edition. The magnet is much more substantial than the old (still cool) magnets that they used to sell. It’s more than worth the extra $5 the Signature Edition will cost you.

Summary

I see that all the cheap 2003 Ozone DVDs at Makeflix are sold out. You can purchase it on Amazon, but at $12.99, you are better off springing for the Blu-ray.

The Blu-ray is available on Amazon, but currently, you get a better deal at Makeflix — even with shipping (which is free if you order more than $30). The basic version is $19.99. If you want the Signature Edition ($24.99), it seems to only be available from Makeflix. If you’re any kind of fan of the film, it’s the one to get.

Note

It turns out that the source material just doesn’t have the resolution to do a widescreen print. It was possible with Robot Ninja (which looks great in widescreen) because it was shot on 16mm film.


Image of Ozone taken from Makeflix under Fair Use.

Ouija Blood Ritual: Blu-ray Review

Ouija Blood Ritual

Ouija Blood Ritual was released at the start of this month and it is a masterpiece.

I didn’t even want to buy it. It looked like just another micro-budget horror film. But Tempe just put out a Blu-ray of Ozone and even though I have several copies, I had to get this version.

The problem is that Makeflix gives free shipping on orders over $30, and I’m really cheap about that. So I purchased Ouija Blood Ritual. And glad I am that I did!

The film is the brainchild of Dustin Mills. I haven’t seen any of his films before, even though he’s made a dozen and a half features since 2010. He is also a puppeteer, which raises him further in my estimation.

The Plot

Ouija Blood Ritual tells the story of three 20-somethings who are producing a YouTube video series that recreates rituals meant to summon ghosts and demons. Things like Bloody Mary.

Not surprisingly, their recreation of the summoning of Closet Man (the boogeyman who hides in your closet) actually works. Things go from uncomfortable to unnerving to terrifying from there

The plotting of it subtle and clever. There are a number of very tense points that aren’t necessarily directly related to the plot. Then there is an extra layer of psychological torture going on in the second half of the film that makes it almost unbearable.

Structure

It’s constructed as a found-footage narrative with two different groups. The second group’s video exists as a kind of film-within-a-film. But it’s also used effectively at the beginning to set the tone.

One element of the story that heightens its effectiveness is that Closet Man can grab your phone and use it to film what he sees. This is seen at the very start but it gets much more intense as the film unfolds.

Acting

What most struck me as I watched the first half-hour of Ouija Blood Ritual was how much I liked the three principal characters. And they all seemed very real. I was surprised to learn that they didn’t have a history of working together. In fact, they mostly hadn’t worked together at all.

The lead is played by Kayla Elizabeth (The Dead Will Rise 2). She’s the on-screen talent for the show who would like to leverage it to get a job in local news. The producer is played by Rob Grant who is understanding of the foibles of his colleagues even if he doesn’t hide his annoyance well. And the cameraman (who is also Kayla’s brother) is played by Dustin Mills himself.

The three come off very much like friends who are working on a project together. Then, when things start going wrong, they respond with the same concern and aggravation that you would expect. The acting was mostly ad-libbed, but I think it speaks well of the actors that they seem like they’ve known each other for years.

Technical Elements

Most of the effects in Ouija Blood Ritual are practical or editorial. Digital effects are also used, however. But only once in a major way and always in a way that added to the film.

The sound editing is exquisite — one of the main reasons the film works so well. It mostly consists of electronic noise. But it is how it is used that makes it effective. For example, there is one scene where Dustin is in his room sobbing and speaking into the camera. But all we hear is noise until the sound cuts to what he’s saying, “I can’t, Goddammit!”

I so often find myself annoyed at music in film making me feel things that the rest of the film would not. So it’s nice to not have any here. Even if we admit that noise is music, its use here only heightens what’s already happening. I think the film would still work with only the in situ sound.

As you can tell, I love this film. Now I’m going to have to dig into Dustin Mills’ old films.

Blu-Ray Details

The video and sound on the Blu-ray are excellent, but that’s not really my thing. Others may be less impressed.

When I looked carefully at some scenes, I saw a bit of aliasing, which is probably in the source material. And since the film is supposed to be found footage, it isn’t well lit. As with other films like V/H/S, not being able to see details is part of the appeal.

Commentary

The Blu-ray comes with a commentary by Dustin Mills. As solo-director commentaries goes, it’s pretty good. There is a lot of background information about the production. And I was pleased to hear him discuss the likability of the characters, which was a critical element of my enjoyment.

Interviews

There is a 7-minute interview with Kayla Elizabeth and 4.5-minute interview with Rob Grant. They don’t add much to what is in the commentary.

Misc Extras

The full footage (14:21) of the film-within-a-film adds a bit of context for the production.

The trailer is also included.

Finally, there are trailers for Sons of Steel (perhaps an upcoming release), The Zombie Army, Going Hog Wild (our review), and Oil of LA.

It’s available on Blu-ray and DVD. You can also get it from Makeflix or directly from Phantom Pain Films.

Overall, a pretty good release of a great film.


Ouija Blood Ritual cover taken from Amazon under Fair Use.

New Psychotronic Delight: Her Name Was Christa

Her Name Is Christa

I just received Her Name Was Christa — the first film that James L Edwards has directed. I know Edwards as part of what I call the Ohio Gang — people who have worked with JR Bookwalter over the years. He played three parts, for example, in Ozone. But the two things I think are most remarkable about him is his performance in Matthew Jason Walsh’s Bloodletting and his excellent script for Bookwalter’s Polymorph.

No Ordinary Film

Based on the artwork, I figured Her Name Was Christa would be another “girlfriend back from the dead” story like in My Dead Girlfriend or Nina Forever. But it’s not.

My primary interest in psychotronic film is the desire to see things I’ve never seen before — the kinds of things that just can’t (or at least shouldn’t) attract big money. Her Name Was Christa delivers on this in spades.

The first 80 minutes of the film is relatively straightforward with an awkward middle-aged man becoming more and more involved with a prostitute. The last 40 minutes of the film makes you rethink just how reliable the narrator had been throughout.

(There is one clue in the last couple of minutes that indicates that at least the primary relationship story was real. Other parts of it are established as delusions. It’s a nice foggy mix and I think it’s best not to over-think it.)

Technical Stuff

The acting in the film is excellent. This is probably Edwards’ best performance. Newcomer Shianne Daye is shockingly good as Christa. She manages to convince me that this relationship could exist.

The whole supporting case was good too. Drew Fortier pulled off the difficult feat of being the obnoxious yet good-hearted friend. And Rick Jermain played several of my past bosses perfectly! Also: JR Bookwalter has a cameo.

Edwards directs like a writer. But I don’t mean that as an insult at all. He, cinematographer (and cameraman?) Gordon Cameron, and art director David Lange created a beautiful film with realistic but uncluttered sets, effective lighting, well-chosen shots with effective camera moves. But nothing is gratuitous. Every shot is natural with a focus on character point-of-view.

In addition, the special make-up effects by Alan Tuskes were transcendent — enough to make any old psychotronic fan believe in a loving God.

I’m divided on the editing. I thought the deliberate pacing worked great and set up what was for me a very emotional denouement. But I also think that the film could be cut down by a half-hour and that might find it’s own audience.

Impact

Of particular note is that Her Name Was Christa is fearless. Although much of it is very funny, it is never camp. James L Edwards presents this tragic and disturbing story with an unfaltering heart. There is not a hit of irony here — something both unusual and badly needed in this moment of “edgy” popular art.

At the same time, it’s clear why this film is not playing at the multiplex. It demands of the viewer. Some of the scenes are hard to watch. I don’t mean they are disgusting. (Since when was that a problem for me?) I mean they were sad. Her Name Was Christa is simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking.

DVD Release

The film comes with two discs: a Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray has the film along with a commentary track with James L Edwards. The DVD has the same as well as these extras:

  • Indiegogo campaign video
  • A video ad looking for someone to play Christa
  • Rehearsal footage
  • Original (30+ minute) video of the institutional sections
  • One deleted scene and two extended scenes
  • An on-set marriage proposal from Drew Fortier to one of the extras
  • The “haunted attraction” scene with different music
  • The full video projected at Stephen’s work.

It’s a nice package. It’s a bit weird that the extras are not on the Blu-ray, but I’m not complaining. I recommend getting the film and since it isn’t available on Amazon, I get no associates fee, so I must be honest. You can get it at Makeflix either in the 2-disc package with the Blu-ray or just on DVD for $5.00 less.


Image taken from the Her Name Is Christa Facebook page.

Strange but True Football Stories

Strange but True Football Stories With Vincent Price

I don’t have much use for the NFL but a lot of people love it. They have the wrong idea about it, though. They think it is a sports organization. It isn’t; it’s a media company. And from early on, it has produced a stream of barely watchable documentary films about the game. One of them was 1987’s Strange but True Football Stories. It is only noteworthy because it features Vincent Price.

I learned about this odd thing from Chris Ameigh at The Full Price Podcast. He tweeted out that he would love to see it. I immediately bought a copy on VHS (the only format it is available in). But it is available online in one form or another — see below.

(By the way, you should check out the podcast. It approaches Vincent Price very differently than I do. I wrote a 10,000-word article about my favorite Price film, The Last Man on Earth — because I’m a freak. The podcast deals with films but also a lot about Price himself like in Ep 6 Price and the Nazis. Check it out!)

What’s in Strange but True Football Stories?

Outside of Vincent Price, this is an entirely standard NFL documentary. Price introduces each section, speaking from a vaguely expressionistic set (really one of those faux-3D CG sets that were so popular on PBS at the time). It is only during the final segment that there is any indication that the narration he is delivering was written before they knew what was going to be in the football segments.

And none of the stories are particularly strange. You know: if you play enough games there are going to be unusual occurrences like a couple of fumbles leading to a touchdown.

Here are the segments that Price does on the VHS:

  • Introduction (1:29)
  • Coaches (0:50)
  • The Double (0:33)
  • Sideshow (0:45)
  • Mirage (1:12)
  • Immaculate Reception (0:34)
  • Conclusion (0:37)

Check out the video I’ve embedded below. It seems to be what was originally broadcast on television. It is distinct from what was released on VHS where all of Price’s narration over the football sequences was replaced by some John Facenda sound-alike.

What Was Price Doing in an NFL Documentary?

Based on my reading about Vincent Price, he had entertainment interests fairly similar to mine. So I don’t see him as much of a football fan. Apparently, his daughter said that he hated the game.

But I grew up watching Price doing similar kinds of gigs. One of my favorites was introducing a horror magician. (I’ve never located this and if anyone can provide information, I’d be most grateful!)

So I’m sure he did it for the money. People tend to forget that stars of Price’s era weren’t rich the way stars are today. Price didn’t make 3 films in Italy in 1961 because he loved the bitter cold in Rome that year! I’m sure he was doing better in 1987, but he also had a bit of an art habit by then. I like to think that he got ten grand for a few hours’ work, but I suspect it wasn’t that much.

A Review?

To me, watching Strange but True Football Stories is bittersweet. He was in his late 70s at this point. He was still very good, but it’s hard to watch our heroes age. And there’s something inauthentic about it too. What made Price so great in films like House on Haunted Hill is that his effortless elegance was itself menacing.

Here, he knows he’s supposed to be The Merchant of Menace. And he plays the role well enough. But he comes off more like a kindly old man.[1] Which I’ll take! This works really well in Edward Scissorhands.

If you are a Vincent Price freak, you’ll certainly want to own this tape. Otherwise, it isn’t worth it. Price only has 6 minutes of screen time. There are far better things he did for television like An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe.


[1] watching it, I was thinking, “It would have been great to have dinner with him and nerd-out about art.” I’m sure he would have had some insights into RH Ives Gammell.

Image taken under Fair Use.

Every JR Bookwalter Film Ranked

JR Bookwalter

Before we get started, I want to be clear about my motivations. I want to know what JR Bookwalter thinks of his films. One that has long fascinated me is just how negative he is about his own work. And in one case, this is very bad.

For decades (Really!) Bookwalter has been slandering his second feature film, Robot Ninja. In the commentary for Chickboxer, he said it was better than Robot Ninja.

Now, I have a soft-spot for Chickboxer, but let’s be real: it’s a weak film. I think it shows that Scott Plummer could be a good director — but he should stay away from action. As it is, it doesn’t compare well to Brett Kelly’s Avenging Force: The Scarab.

Robot Ninja Changes Everything

With the recent (Last!) Tempe release of a restored version of Robot Ninja, it seems that Bookwalter finally gives it the respect that fans long have. And I get it: there were always problems with the film. But it’s not like the new release suddenly made the film a gory masterpiece. It was always that! (Just ask Burt Ward!)

I have something of an obsession with micro-budget films. So it isn’t surprising that I would shine the glorious light of my film-analysis brilliance on Bookwalter. In fact, I’ve written a rather long article about The Dead Next Door that has been sitting around waiting for some final research.

But Bookwalter is hardly alone. I’m just as big a fan of Michael Kallio. And there are many others that I won’t name because I don’t want to insult him. There is something really special about films that cost little money. It allows filmmakers to fly their freak flag. And sure, Bookwalter never reached the heights of George Barry, but there’s much to delight in.

JR Bookwalter’s Films Ranked

In the following list, I have made no effort to be quantitative. These are just my gut reactions to the narrative feature films he’s directed. And certainly, I would probably change the exact order on any given day.

What I think I can say is that I consider 7 of these films to be quite good. Two of them are marginal but very watchable. And the last four, well, I love them, but they’re weak. And I say that knowing that two of these are considered by many to be classics.

Am I being unfair? Absolutely! And I’ll discuss that below.

  1. Ozone (1995): the film JR Bookwalter was born to make. It has some of his best make-up effects combined with a solid script. Also, it stars James Black, and he really is irresistible as a leading man.
  2. Kingdom of the Vampire (1990): a coming-of-age vampire picture. Matthew Jason Walsh is perfectly mopey as the protagonist Cherie Patry is wonderfully theatrical as his mother. That dynamic is what makes it work.
  3. Witchouse II: Blood Coven (2000): this is a solid film no matter how you look at it. And it gives Ariauna Albright a chance to really shine.
  4. Polymorph (1996): a great combination of horror/sci-fi and crime. The effects may not have aged well but the conflicts between the characters work as well as ever. Really: it’s up there with Night of the Living Dead in that regard.
  5. Robot Ninja (1989): in a world of almost weekly vanilla superhero films, this one stands out. It is amazingly gory and violent while also being campy in the extreme. My big problem with the modern comic-book film is that somehow Hollywood takes them seriously. Who could take this kind of thing seriously? And what about that great Terminator homage with him repairing his arm?! I still have trouble watching that.
  6. The Dead Next Door (1989): I’ll admit that I may rate this low because I’ve seen it way too many times. Of course, it doesn’t help that Bookwalter has released it with two different soundtracks and in two different aspect ratios. I still love the film. And it’s very funny.
  7. Witchouse 3: Demon Fire (2001): the position of this is one that would be different on a different day. In its way, it’s as good as the second one. I really enjoy it. I’m just not as keen on the look of the film. Really good writing and acting, regardless.
  8. Mega Scorpions (2003): I’m still shocked at how well this film turned out. I think it shows just what a professional Bookwalter is because it also seems like he really isn’t that inspired. But it works and it annoys me that it isn’t available on disc.
  9. Maximum Impact (1992): probably the best of the six-pack films. It works remarkably well, even though I had to watch it a couple of times before I could remember the plot. Films like this highlight the fact that Bookwalter’s true love is horror.
  10. The Sandman (1995): I told you I was just going for the gut. There’s lots to like about it but tonally, it’s a mess. All the geeky humor goes away after the first half. And the ending doesn’t help. I know I’m being unfair and I know a lot of people love this film. So make your own list!
  11. Galaxy of the Dinosaurs (1992): this is one of the best examples of idiosyncratic art ever made. And I understand: this was just David DeCoteau trying to make some money. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to him that the rich filmed animation of Planet of the Dinosaurs would never merge with the original video being shot. But the combination is something to behold. And Jon Killough did a great job integrating the whole thing. Whoever came up with the ending deserves a prize!
  12. Humanoids From Atlantis (1992): it was all a fake! No it wasn’t! I don’t know. This is such a silly film that it is basically impossible not to like. It is Bookwalter’s ultimate “Let’s put on a show!” film.
  13. Zombie Cop (1991): not a bad film. I just don’t connect with it. Truthfully, I think a big part of it is the choice of locations. It just looks so much like the suburbs that it is hard to take any more seriously than Humanoids From Atlantis. But it doesn’t have the charm.

JR Bookwalter’s Career in Sum

There you go. What’s interesting is that I enjoy watching all of these films. I haven’t thought about Bookwalter’s career before. It’s remarkable when you consider that the budget of all 13 films combined is only that of one normal low-budget film.

It’s a reminder of what we’d get if instead of every $100 million movie, 100 filmmakers were given a million each.

My hope is that JR Bookwalter will put out his own ranking, if for no other reason than to make up for fans having to listen to him slander Robot Ninja for such a long time.


Image taken from JR Bookwalter’s YouTube channel under Fair Use.

Going Hog Wild

Going Hog Wild (1988)

My journey to psychotronic film starts with horror. Many years ago, I wanted to revisit the great terror of my childhood, The Last Man on Earth. So I went to Movie Madness in Portland and found that it was in the Psychotronic section. That got me interested in this genre.

But the truth is that I’m not that interested in most kinds of psychotronic films. Horror is really my main love. But my wish to understand the scope of psychotronic film often finds me watching films that I wouldn’t normally. Such is the case with Going Hog Wild.

About Going Hog Wild

Made in 1988 for the huge porn video market, it offers a distinctly old-fashioned approach to sexual titillation. There is no sex in it and virtually no nudity. Instead, it offers mud (oil, chocolate) wrestling and some striptease: distinctly campy softcore porn.

I had expected Going Hog Wild to have some narrative that justified the wrestling matches, but that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a very low-budget version of a professional wrestling pay-per-view match, including the announcer and a scantly-clad man displaying the round number cards.

Behind the Scenes

One could see this all as a parody of wrestling. Of course, the same could be said of the WWE. I see it as simply a kind of good-natured fetish porn. The producers/directors are at least nominally women. I assume they are pseudonyms, but I if I had to guess, I’d say the woman who plays the ring announcer (“Deborah Winger”) was one of them.

The marketing for the film revolves around Layla LaShell, a 350-pound porn actress. She does have a great deal of charisma. Twenty-eight minutes of the 89-minute runtime is devoted to her and her opponent Headlights (“Audry W”).

It’s hard not to notice an implicit edge of fat-shaming to the whole film. But LaShell and Headlights are so self-assured that the whole thing comes off as almost an ad for Fat Pride.

Notables from the regular porn world include Tammy White and Nikki King, who are paired in the first fight.

Who Is This Film For?

Obviously, Going Hog Wild is meant for a specialized audience. It isn’t me. If it had offered a narrative, I might have loved it. But that’s not what this film is about. You really have to just find women wrestling in viscous fluids interesting.

Or maybe need to be into wrestling. Regardless, I know there are people out there who would love Going Hog Wild. And even for people like me, it has a certain appeal. A fair amount of work went into it. And parts of it are quite funny.

I’m glad to have it. Now I have a counter-example when someone complains after I’ve forced them to watch Chickboxer. Of course, they might enjoy Going Hog Wild more. And that’s valid, even if Chickboxer has actual sex in it.[1]


[1] When I first watched Chickboxer, I missed that scene they tacked on at the end. I just turned off the film after as Suscinski and Edwards walk away. It really is better that way.

Imagine taken from Phantom Pain Films under Fair Use.

Ed Wood and “Final Curtain”

Ed Wood in Final Curtain
Ed Wood in “Final Curtain”

In 1957, Ed Wood wrote, produced, and directed a 22-minute film intended to be a television pilot, “Final Curtain” for a show apparently called Portraits of Terror. It was lost for many years but was rediscovered and presented at Slamdance in 2012. It isn’t close to Wood’s best work, but it does illustrate many of his idiosyncrasies.

Plot of “Final Curtain”

The story is shockingly simple. An actor who plays “the vampire” in a play wanders around the theater after everyone is gone. He is searching for something but he can’t say what it is.

As he wanders, he is frightened by various ghostly things (mostly off-screen) including the manikin of a female vampire (played by ” Jenny Stevens”).

Finally, the actor finds what he is looking for: a coffin (which looks nothing at all like a coffin). He gets in it and closes the lid.

Cast

The actor is played by Duke Moore, who you probably know as Lt John Harper from Plan 9 From Outer Space — the guy who scratches his face with the barrel of his gun. The whole film is shot MOS, so Moore doesn’t have any dialog.

The voice-over is performed by another Plan 9 alumnus, Dudley Manlove. It’s rather good and certainly preferable to Wood’s narration, which takes his already ponderous dialog and elevates it to silly heights.

Who Is Jenny Stevens?

While watching “Final Curtain,” I was pleased to see that the female vampire manikin was Ed Wood in drag. But surprisingly, no one I could find online seemed to have notice this.

IMDb claims that “Jenny” is the same “Jeannie Stevens” who played The Black Ghost in Night of the Ghouls. And indeed, this is true. That was Ed Wood too. The site claims, “According to Paul Marco, Wood could not get Jeannie Stevens to film these scenes, so he wore the costume and acted as a replacement.” But this is not true.

“Final Curtain” was made before Night of the Ghouls. And footage from it is used, including that with “Jenny.” (Typically, the costume doesn’t match that of The Black Ghost.)

I have little doubt that Wood told Marco this story of the mysterious Ms Stevens. It’s even possible it was true for “Final Curtain.” But Wood hardly needed an excuse to dress as a woman. And what is he wearing there? Why, I think that’s angora!

What’s Wrong With Ed Wood

I’m a fan of Ed Wood. I find the award of “Worst Director of All Time” to be offensive — not least because I’m sure the people who voted for that hadn’t seen his work. Jail Bait is a perfectly good crime drama. And Glen or Glenda is nothing short of genius.

But there are things that prevented him from ever finding the kind of success he deserved. Some — like his idiosyncrasies — are also what made him great. Others were not laudable.

Every Idea Is Golden

Wood never let a limited idea get in the way of finishing a project. I know seeing things through to the end is considered an admirable quality. I personally disagree. I think it means you spend a lot of time on projects that aren’t worth pursuing at the expense of projects that are.

This led to Wood publishing upwards of a hundred novels and countless shorter pieces. It also led to “Final Curtain.” The idea really isn’t very good: a man wanders around looking for something only to learn it was a coffin and by extension, his death.

That might all be fine if Wood had an interesting story to tell throughout the journey. But he doesn’t. It’s 20 minutes of padding leading up to a mediocre denouement.

Ponderous Narration

The other major problem with Ed Wood is his tendency to over-dramatize. His narration asks us to be far more vested than we could possibly be. In Plan 9, he describes a chilling idea: that humans could be on the verge of a device that would be far more destructive than even the nuclear bomb.

Yet this is not what his narration tells us we should be worried about. Apparently, the destruction of the universe is nothing compared to space aliens creating a couple of zombies.

Meanwhile, when talking about the important issue of gender dysphoria, Wood uses matter-of-fact narration.

In “Final Curtain” we are told over and over that all this is very important. And maybe if the ending paid-off more, it would work. But it doesn’t. Instead, we walk away with the thought that a silly man must have made this film.

Ed Wood’s Positives

There has been little written about “Final Curtain.” I believe this is because most people assume Wood was talentless and they see this film as just another example. But there are things to like here.

Setting a Mood

Wood does set a mood and maintains it longer than lesser men would even attempt. This is the flip-side of his commitment to projects that are unworthy. He is committed to what he does.

Love it or hate it, there is not a hint of the irony that has destroyed so much modern cinema. Wood’s wholesomeness is a welcome antidote to this — a sign of his bravery in contrast to much modern cowardice.

A Film From Nothing

Another remarkable thing about “Final Curtain” is that Wood manages to tell a story with virtually nothing. I don’t know the story of this film, but I wouldn’t doubt the entire thing was shot in one night when he had access to this theater.

There’s no coffin? No problem! There’s a big cabinet that could conceivably be a coffin. Nothing to look at during 90% of the film? No problem! Add some overwrought narration.

Summary

You have to hand it him. Ed Wood made movies when working with almost nothing. “Final Curtain” is a good example of this. Not that fans needed to be reminded.

Afterword

Ed Wood really is an important filmmaker and his work is worth checking out. Most of his films are available for free:

The other films can generally be found elsewhere on the web. Necromania, which is a hardcore film, can be found of porn sites.

Great Horror Shorts: SLUT (2014)

As a rule, short films are better than features. I believe I know why. Short films are as long as they need to be but features usually ought to be a different length. Sometimes this means they really need to be a miniseries. But usually, they are padded out for the purpose of distribution.

SLUT (2014)

So I often come upon short films that are very good. But it’s rare to come upon something as brilliant as SLUT (2014). Everything works in it. The acting is first-rate. The sets look as worn down as they were during my own childhood. The lighting is subtle and sets an unsettling mood. Each shot is beautiful. The pacing is perfect. And it tells a compelling story with rich thematic elements.

SLUT is also like a horror film etude. It includes many classic tropes but usually done with more artistry than normal. They are also done knowingly with a wink to connoisseurs. When Maddy is reaching desperately for the lipstick tube, it’s as if the director is breaking in, “I know, right?”

Where Are They Now?

It says much about our world that none of the principals who worked on this film have really broken through. Most have struggled along in an industry that cares a lot more about money than art.

Not that it is all bad. Editor Michael Block has become a successful assistant editor, which might well lead to more. Production designer Yihong Ding has taken a similar path in her career. And director Chloe Okuno has just been tapped to direct a film version of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person.” But this is 5 years after SLUT.

Watch SLUT

But enough complaining. If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Thanks to the Screamfest Horror Film Festival, it is available for free on YouTube.


Image taken from a frame in the film.

First Look: Michael Kallio

Michael Kallio

One of the great joys of psychotronic film is the way that one gem leads to another. That was the case with my recent discovery of Michael Kallio.

At least once a year, I put on My Name Is Bruce (2008). It’s one of those films that always makes me smile when I’m feeling down. Mark Verheiden’s screenplay is so funny and knowing and Bruce Campbell is fearless playing his idiot alter-ego.

One of the many wonderful characters in it is the director of a low-budget horror film Campbell is starring in called “Cave Alien II.” In one of the featurettes on the DVD is a documentary about the making of “Cavealien 2.” The director, Mike Gg, is interviewed and he insists that it is pronounced “cav-ALL-eon.”

I decided that I had to find out who the actor, Michael Kallio, was. And I learned that he’s written, directed, and produced about 50 films — most of them short. And lucky for us, Kallio has put many of them on YouTube.

Short Films of Michael Kallio

His short films tend to be pretty funny. The first one I saw was Ash vs Evil Dead: Auntie Linda’s Bake Off:

It is not just a loving homage to the series, it fully captures its essence. As fun as Ash vs Evil Dead was, there wasn’t much to it that isn’t in Auntie Linda’s. And Kallio certainly understands the Raimi style.

The Texas Chainsaw Manicure

Another homage is The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. It’s very silly with at least three strong laughs. And it makes a good argument for proper tipping.

(According to Kallio, there is a short film by Bill Mosley — Bill Moseley? — with the same name. I found part of it online. It is about Leatherface as a topiary artist. It is certainly as silly as Kallio’s opus.)

Curse of the Monkey

Another good one is Curse of the Monkey. It is one of many that Kallio shot when he was much younger but only recently finished. But it’s clear what’s there now is what he always intended. It’s got a great silent comedy sensibility with lots of modern references. I love the break in the gorilla suit. And the fight scenes are both realistic and funny.

Michael Kallio Feature Films

Based on this, I looked for Kallio’s feature films. It turned out to be harder than it needed to be because of Amazon’s “profit over usability” search function. But I did succeed!

Hatred of a Minute

I found Kallio’s first feature film, Hatred of a Minute. There’s an irony with loving low-budget films: they usually cost a lot more to get on disc — when they can be had at all. So while I can usually get the latest superhero film for a buck, this one was $19.95. But I wasn’t disappointed.

Unlike the short films I saw, Hatred of a Minute is pretty serious. That isn’t to say that it isn’t filled with sly little jokes. But they come out much more on the second viewing.

The film tells the story of a man’s descent into serial murder along with lots of flashbacks to his childhood. After seeing his step-father physically abuse his mother, he comes to see murdering women as an act of mercy. There’s also a minor B plot that is a police procedural.

But what really makes the film work is its structure. The frame of the story is Eric (played by Michael Kallio) and his drive with a bound woman in the back of his car. Within this, we see Eric as he is just a young man haunted by his past to a full-blown psychopath. As part of this, we have spectacular scenes that go on inside his head. These are thrilling by any measure. They use the full palette of tricks available to writer, director, photographer, and editor.

Despite the film being low-budget, the acting is first-rate. I assume they are mostly people who do industrial work because they don’t have a lot listed on IMDb. The principals are Tim Lovelace (Legion of the Night), Tracee Newberry, and co-writer Lisa Jesswein. Of particular note is Gunnar Hansen (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) as Eric’s abusive step-father.

Koreatown

When I first searched for Koreatown, I didn’t find it. It was only when I was searching for “Michael Kallio” that I found it. It isn’t helped that Amazon has no image for it. But it is at least largely due to my own scattered nature.

It tells the story of a former cop who has just been released from prison after 15 years. He was not innocent but nonetheless set up by a pimp who also killed his girlfriend and kidnapped his daughter. The cop spends the film looking for his daughter — along with vengeance against the pimp.

This sounds simple enough and it does have a Frank Miller graphic novel feel to it. But it is also very much a Kallio story. The lead character is not very effective. He bumbles his way through the first two acts getting people killed and getting himself beaten up and humiliated a number of times. He only survives because the pimp wants to finish him off himself.

Koreatown is highly episodic. This may be intentional or the result of the film being created over many years. Regardless, it gives the film more of that comic book flavor. No one really cares about the beginning of the film as long as we make it to the badass finale. And we do!

It also features a couple of laugh-out-loud sequences. The most notable is when a young man tries to rob the main character. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Other Features

I’m eager to see more of Kallio’s work. Back in the early 2000s, he made two other features: Survive! and Memory Lapse. I haven’t found out anything about the latter other than IMDb’s description, “A drug dealer with too many morals tries to bail out of the ‘business’ but, is sucked back in when a black-out leads to the corpse of his dead girl friend, and he’s to blame.” That sounds like it could be somewhat like Koreatown.

Survive! seems to have been released on VHS — but I have been looking for it for over a year and have never found it for sale at any price. Kallio has, however, released a trailer for it. It seems that he wrote the story but that the dialog is improvised. It looks fun:

More recently, Kallio has been producing a lot of stuff for television. That makes a certain amount of sense given those last three features were shot on DV. (Hatred of a Minute was shot on 16mm film.)

More Michael Kallio

These days, he seems to be doing rather well in Hollywood — including making a number of oddities such as Untitled Radioactive Chicken Heads Documentary. He also seems to be doing stuff along the lines of Larry Blamire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra) featuring Orton Z Creswell, a Criswell parody:

Although finished, I’m not sure the film has been released. And there’s much more including three episodes of Paranormal, Burbank, about two nerdy ghost hunters. And there are documentaries like Heart of Dorkness, which is part of the extras on My Name Is Bruce.

The truth is that Michael Kallio does a lot of stuff. And he hasn’t seen nearly the attention that he deserves.


Image of Michael Kallio based on his image on his twitter account under Fair Use.