2015 Recap Part 1: Favorite Restorations & Reissues, Five Favorite Independent Genre Films
I’ve tried to post links to where films are available for purchase or online streaming and/or rental wherever possible, but there are so many VOD outlets that I’ve mostly just stuck with the major ones (Amazon, Google, iTunes). View this list on Letterboxd here.
Ten-ish Favorite Restorations & Reissues
Jeanne is a pure, young newly wed bride who is forced to pay with her body when her new groom Jean can’t afford the marriage tax demanded by the Lord of their village. This assault awakens something in Jeanne, what at first seems to be a mischievous sprite but soon is revealed to be Satan himself. They engage in a battle of wills in which Jeanne tries to persevere in the face of intense misery inflicted by the men in power over the land and people where she lives, while Satan offers her revenge in exchange for her soul. Originally released in Japan in 1973, BELLADONNA OF SADNESS has never been officially released in the States before and this astonishing 4K restoration from Cinelicious Pics is the best possible way it could have made its debut. Much of the film is presented as long horizontal or vertical tableaus across which the camera pans, and this new restoration allows the viewer to see every pencil line, brush stroke, and burst of color. It’s a genuinely astonishing restoration of a beautiful animated oddity.
Cult/exploitation film historians Vinegar Syndrome launched a sister imprint this year called Etiquette Pictures, “devoted to the preservation and distribution of unique, offbeat, and significant experimental films, documentaries and independent features.” For the launch of this label, they chose James B. Harris’s 1973 oddity SOME CALL IT LOVING, which had never been previously released on DVD or Blu-ray, and it’s hard to imagine a better way to make a first impression. A sort of surreal adult fairy tale, the film follows Robert Troy (Zalman King), a young man who happens upon a “Sleeping Beauty” act at a carnival — literally a girl named Jennifer (Tisa Farrow) who has been asleep for eight years — and buys her from her “keeper” (who lets anyone kiss her for a dollar, betting they’ll be her Prince Charming). Robert takes Jennifer back to the huge mansion where he lives, where she awakens into the strange world of Robert and Scarlett (Carol White), the mysterious woman who lives in the mansion with him. SOME CALL IT LOVING is beautifully shot by Mario Tosi, whose dreamy cinematography combines with King’s appropriately somnambulant performance to give the film a uniquely subdued but unsettling tone. Vinegar Syndrome restored the film in 2K from the 35mm negative, and the result is breathtaking.
A Psychopath (Erwin Leder in a terrifying performance) is released from prison and immediately sets about terrorizing and murdering a family in their isolated home. That’s pretty much the entire story of ANGST, but director Gerald Kargl takes an audacious approach to this gruesome subject matter, simultaneously prefiguring camera techniques that would not move into the cinematic language at large until well over a decade later (it’s impossible not to see the influence this film had on the style of the films of Darren Aronofsky and Gaspar Noé in particular) and making one of the least glamorous depictions of a character compelled to kill in film history. ANGST’s closest relation is probably John McNaughton’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, but this film’s narrow focus on the 24 hours following its character’s release from prison gives it a more oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere than HENRY and its minimal narration makes the viewer feel even more like they’re in the killer’s head. Cult Epics released ANGST on Blu-ray and DVD in the States this year and its new transfer made the rounds theatrically as well, giving many viewers here in America their first harrowing encounter with the film. This is a seriously disturbing horror film almost unbelievably ahead of its time, and hopefully this new release will help it attain the reputation it deserves.
This has been a rollercoaster year for celluloid. The wave of digital conversion has continued to sweep unabated through the multiplexes, even while diehard film devotees like Quentin Tarantino and Dennis Hauck have crusaded for the continued exhibition of films projected from physical prints. However, an unexpected silver lining is that there are an awful lot of people out there with an awful lot of prints they have no idea what to do with, and when print collectors get their hands on them they may find something special. Such is the case with Paul Kyriazi’s NINJA BUSTERS, a 1984 action/comedy that had almost completely disappeared from cinema history until a 35mm print of the film turned up in a lot of prints picked up by a prominent collector a few years ago. That print was screend at the 2015 Exhumed Films eX-Fest and the audience went crazy for it, and from there it has finally found a wide release for the first time ever on Blu-ray from new imprint Garagehouse Pictures. Like Vinegar Syndrome, Garagehouse is run by dedicated cult/exploitation cinema fans, and they gave the presentation of NINJA BUSTERS a level of care on par with Vinegar Syndrome’s work. This is a goofy and hugely fun movie, and hopefully the fact that it has resurfaced signals that the continued mass unearthing of film history from the basements and storage units of North America may yield many more lost treasures. But now while we wait for that to happen, we can watch a couple of dorks eat too much pizza and beat up an army of the worst ninjas ever.
I am ashamed to admit that I had acquired a bootleg of THUNDERCRACK! several years ago and, for whatever reason, had sat on it without watching it. At some point after I grabbed it, though, Synapse Films announced they were working on a restored version of the film. Since the version I had was a low-quality rip, at that point I decided the best thing to do would be to wait until that restoration was complete. I’m sort of glad I waited, because this film is so strange that you really want to get the best-looking version of it you possibly can, just to make sure you’re not hallucinating the whole thing under those layers of video noise from an nth-generation VHS dub.
A bizarre hybrid of hardcore sex and melodramatic mystery, THUNDERCRACK! tells the story of several travelers who have become stranded at Prairie Blossom, the mansion of lonely alcoholic widow Mrs. Gert Hammond (Marion Eaton). While Gert gets an eyeful peeping on her guests changing clothes, masturbating, and have sex with each other, truck driver Bing (George Kuchar) is transporting a load of circus animals including a dangerous female gorilla named Medusa (credited to “Pamela Primate”). When he arrives at Prairie Blossom, he unspools the strange tale of how Medusa fell in love with him while the gathered souls wait out the violent storm and continue to pair off. It’s even weirder than it sounds, but it’s also hilarious and totally unique. Written by George Kuchar and directed by artist Curt McDowell, THUNDERCRACK! belongs in the pantheon of great weirdo 70s cult films and this new restoration is a great way to be introduced to its charms.
Vinegar Syndrome has been doing excellent work restoring and releasing films by a number of notable directors who worked in adult film in the 70s and 80s. Some of my favorites have been their reissues of the films of Anthony Spinelli. Two of Vinegar Syndrome’s best releases of the year were Spinelli films: SEX WORLD was released in an amazing limited edition Blu-ray/DVD/CD set at the end of 2014 and reissued on DVD this year, and DIXIE RAY: HOLLYWOOD STAR was released on a standalone DVD in 2015. While it could easily have been just a goof on Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD, SEX WORLD takes the basic idea (a resort where automatons fulfill visitors’ sexual fantasies) and uses it to build a series of carefully observed stories about the dynamics in the relationship of couples. There’s some humor, but Spinelli excelled in making actual drama instead of just sex with threadbare story, and SEX WORLD is an excellent example of that.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, DIXIE RAY: HOLLYWOOD STAR mostly does feel like sex with a threadbare story in its X-rated version. It’s a throwback to Golden Age Hollywood mysteries and film noir, with hardboiled dialogue and all the stuff you’d expect: hard-drinkin’ men, femmes fatale, murder, etc. But the hardcore version gets bogged down by its obligation to present as much sex as possible, making it a pretty good adult movie but not really a good movie overall. However, the DVD includes the complete R-rated cut of the film (retitled IT’S CALLED MURDER, BABY) that only runs 6 minutes shorter than the hardcore version. Stripped of its lengthy sex scenes, the R-rated version substitutes a lot more character and plot, and the final result is a great tribute to noir cinema that stands as one of the best of Spinelli’s films released by Vinegar Syndrome to date.
Like many people, my first introduction to MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE was on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. I found it fascinating that this thing existed, and that it was so thoroughly bizarre that even Joel and the Bots had a tough time sitting through it. I tracked down the film on shoddy public domain home video releases to watch on its own, and it did not disappoint: this was a thing that could not be explained away as simply a “bad movie.” MANOS is an early example of what some cinephiles call “outsider cinema,” films so utterly bizarre that they become accidentally surreal and unsettling/frightening in a way that was probably not intentional by their creators. These are films that are marked by particularly strange approaches to human behavior, speech, cinematic language, and/or genre tropes. They may provoke responses of laughter, but often also inspire questions about how the filmmakers believe people act and think and/or how narrative film is supposed to work.
MANOS embodies these things perfectly. It’s a strange horror movie that has moments of surreal dread juxtaposed with weird humor that occasionally seems like it might have been intentional. Whether or not it was isn’t really the point: in some ways, MANOS feels less like the work of incompetent filmmakers than something made by someone who only had the vaguest idea of what a movie even was. The tragic story behind the film has been well documented, and only adds to its reputation as a curious artifact. In 2011, filmmaker Benjamin Solovey found film elements for MANOS that had long been thought lost and embarked on the daunting process of restoring it in HD. After years of hard work and some appropriately odd behind-the-scenes hitches (detailed in “The Battle Over the Worst Movie Ever,” a fascinating piece by Jake Rossen published in Playboy magazine), Synapse Films finally released the restored MANOS on Blu-ray this year. The resulting restoration makes the movie seem even stranger than ever before now that we can actually see it clearly.
Another fascinating piece of “outsider cinema” released this year is DANGEROUS MEN, a film produced over the course of more than two decades and originally released in 2005. Only a handful of theaters screened the film back then, seemingly dooming it to obscurity. Thanks to the efforts of cinephiles, programmers, and print collectors connected to The Cinefamily, The American Genre Film Archive, and Drafthouse Films, DANGEROUS MEN was rescued and given a new theatrical release in 2015. It’s not hard to see why the people who brought MIAMI CONNECTION and ROAR back to big screens would have been anxious to get DANGEROUS MEN out in front of audiences again. This is certainly a unique moviegoing experience, and providing any description of plot would be a huge disservice to anyone going in to see it for the first time; in fact, I would highly recommend even avoiding the trailer until after you’ve seen the film. Most films work best when you go in knowing as little as possible, and this definitely applies to DANGEROUS MEN, which constantly zig-zags in unpredictable directions. That’s a rare thing in any film, and it’s delivered here with an infectious, undeniable DIY enthusiasm.
Following MANOS and DANGEROUS MEN down the “outsider cinema” rabbit hole could lead one to eventually stumble into the work of shot-on-video auteur Carl J. Sukenick. Sukenick has been making movies shot and edited on 1980s consumer-grade technology for decades — independent cult video company Horror Boobs released his latest feature, THE TOXIC RETARDS, just this year — most of which he sold directly via mail through magazine ads. Those ads promised the films featured “major special effects by Joe LaPenna of the ‘Tales from the Darkside’ TV Show and the Dante Studio,” but nothing could prepare even the most hardened fan of weird cinema for Sukenick’s approach to making movies. If Mark Region is the Ready for the House-era Jandek of cinema, Sukenick may be the closest thing the art form has yet had to a true outsider artist like Henry Darger or Wesley Willis. His work completely defies any traditional concepts of narrative, often hinting at a storyline (frequently conveyed in specific phrases repeated multiple times and often displayed as on-screen text) but in a manner reminiscent of a kid making up a story as he goes along.
Massacre Video, a small video label specializing in VHS and DVD releases of genre obscurities, reissued three of Sukenick’s early 1990s films in a much-anticipated limited edition 2-DVD set this year (the second disc includes MUTANT MASSACRE in addition to the double feature on disc 1). For dedicated paracinephiles, this is required viewing not just for the movies themselves but for the interview footage with Sukenick. It’s almost literally impossible to describe the experience of watching these films; it’s entirely reasonable to sit through the entirety of any of Sukenick’s features and feel like you’re witnessing him laying bare the futility of art and the full depth of the absurdity of human existence in the universe. He does this, of course, completely accidentally, by making art the only way he knows how. I can’t say I’ll be revisiting any of these films any time in the near future, but I feel like I have to have them around just to remind myself such things exist in this world.
This one should require no introduction or explanation. Bava’s film set the prototype for 60s and 70s Italian giallo cinema, setting an impossibly high bar for technical proficiency and gorgeous imagery. Long only available on a DVD that seemed to be about a half-step up from a bootleg in the States, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was given an absolutely stunning new transfer from Arrow Films and released in an appropriately lavish Blu-ray/DVD set this year. This is a long overdue and well-deserved restoration for one of the indisputable classics of genre cinema.
BLOOD is one of Andy Milligan’s best and most accessible films. He takes the basic concept of a Universal “monster rally” film and gives it his own very specific flavor: this is the story of a werewolf and vampire trapped in a loveless marriage, and the werewolf is investigating his accountant for estate fraud with the help of the accountant’s beautiful assistant. Milligan specialized in creating a universe in which every character has severe neuroses, and these problems explode in epic torrents of dialogue, delivered as though each actor is terrified they might not get the line out before it kills them. This overheated style of acting may have been at least partially due to Milligan’s practice of frequently shooting on short ends of film, but it became a hallmark of his work and it hits a peak in BLOOD. Even in its previously-available bootlegged version (ripped from a very messy PAL VHS and running just under an hour) BLOOD packed in a lot of Milligan insanity: jealousy, greed, regret, infidelity, incest, murder, man-eating plants, vampires, werewolves, and more. It’s a wild, exhausting ride.
In 2014, Exhumed Films screened an original U.S. theatrical print of BLOOD as part of their Forgotten Films Fest. This version ran 12 minutes longer than the previously available bootlegs. Interestingly, the film does not appear to have been cut for content in the European VHS version, just for time. All the cuts in the film seem to have been designed to bring the film in under an hour, for whatever reason, and recovering any lost Milligan dialogue is exciting. Even better, one of these rare extant prints was used to create a new HD transfer, and Code Red DVD released it on a Blu-ray this year along with Gerard Damiano’s LEGACY OF SATAN (1974). Needless to say, the disc is worth picking up for BLOOD alone, but the other feature is a nice curiosity to have around. Code Red released three of Milligan’s films on Blu-ray last year and also recently released a Blu-ray of THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! (1972). None of Milligan’s films exist in anything remotely resembling pristine condition, but it’s great to have high-quality transfers of as many of his existing films as possible. If you’ve been curious about Milligan but unsure of where to jump in, BLOOD is just about the perfect place to start.
Five-ish Favorite Independent Genre Films:
Six murdered women are doomed to wander the decaying home of their killer, trapped in the terror and helplessness of their last moments. There’s no dialogue in writer/director Phil Stevens’s debut feature, just creepily effective sound design and an appropriately ominous ambient score, but the absolutely dedicated actors and the obvious care with which Stevens made the film deliver something unique, gruesome, and hypnotic. Make no mistake, this is not a “fun” movie on any level, but the singular atmosphere it creates and sustains is seriously impressive. Think of it as Jörg Buttgereit doing LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and you’re in the ballpark. Stevens and his collaborators have created a series of sets that are so minutely detailed in their rot that you can almost smell it.
Ohio-based filmmaker Henrique Couto has been very prolific over the last few years and has gained a cult following in the process thanks to his uncanny ability to deliver entertaining work of shockingly high quality on minuscule budgets. His wildly varied output doesn’t hurt, either: his recent films have included horror films, a family holiday comedy, a very non-family-appropriate holiday comedy, and an honest-to-God western. And that’s just counting the stuff he’s done that’s already out — a clever “found footage” horror film (ALONE IN THE GHOST HOUSE) and a romantic comedy (MAKING OUT) will be released next year. Couto’s fun horror anthology SCAREWAVES was released on DVD just before Halloween this year, and it’s a fun throwback to 80s horror. CALAMITY JANE’S REVENGE is a solid indie western (a genre so thoroughly ignored by nano-budget filmmakers that the “indie western” subgenre might have literally been this one movie in 2015) builds an entire western out of a few well-chosen props and costumes and one decrepit ghost town. Anyone looking for where to start with independent American movies would do well to look into Couto’s work.
Chris LaMartina’s follow-up to his ingenious WNUF HALLOWEEN SPECIAL is a much more traditional horror/comedy, but it retains the wit and charm that helped make that film so entertaining. It also features some returning actors from his previous film, they’re backed up with an impressive array of practical makeup and monster effects. If there’s one major complaint here, it’s that CALL GIRL OF CTHULHU falls a little too neatly in line with standard horror tropes, but the endearing cast and awesome effects help make up for that.
Christopher R. Mihm’s tenth film in as many years is his most ambitious yet, which is really saying something after last year’s THE LATE NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE (which, as its name suggests, consisted of two short features shown back-to-back, GRINDHOUSE-style). Mihm specializes in movies made in the style of 1950s/60s genre cinema. Unlike Larry Blamire (THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA), Mihm’s aim is mostly to mimic the look and tone of those films as straightforwardly as possible. While using this approach, Mihm has also created what his fans call the “Mihmiverse,” the shared universe in which most of his films take place. Danny Johnson, played by Mihm’s son Elliott, is a recurring character whose first appearance was in 2009’s TERROR FROM BENEATH THE EARTH. He takes center stage here in a family-friendly adventure that includes aliens (puppets), monsters (stop-motion), and robots (including a guy in a charmingly lo-fi garbage-can suit). Mihm and his collaborators make these movies sheerly out of love, and it shows in every handmade piece of costume and set. Fans of Mihm will have already bought this one, but anyone looking to jump into the Mihmiverse will find this a good entry point.
Cosmotropia de Xam is a prolific Europe-based independent filmmaker who has made several self-released films and distributed them through Xam’s label Phantasma Disques. Many of these films have been very abstract, skirting the line between narrative and experimental cinema, but the most recent films of Xam’s “Anima Persa Trilogy” (a series of films heavily influenced by Italian giallo and horror) have had a stronger focus on storyline. The final entry in the trilogy is INFERNO VENEZIANO, a surreal horror film shot in Venice and making good use of the ancient city in creating a nightmarish atmosphere. There are a number of obvious influences here — Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND and Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW are overtly referenced repeatedly — but Xam incorporates them into a bizarre story that becomes increasingly unimportant as the film progresses. There’s a lot of striking imagery in the film, and even a dose of unexpected humor, making this one of Xam’s most accessible films to date.