Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Toxic Avenger Part II (1989)


Yet more daftness from the house of Troma. 
If you can't remember what happened at the end of the first part of the adventures of THE TOXIC AVENGER then don't worry, because there's a helpful recap at the beginning of this, which comes after titles that would probably be too bright for an overactive five year old, as well as a bouncy theme song to match.


Toxie is still living in a toxic waste dump in Tromaville with his blind girlfriend who is now played by Phoebe Legere. Ms Legere demonstrates an acting style that can charitably be described as 'unique', but in fact that just means she seems all the more suited to this film than some of the other people in it. 
       After the recap the Tromaville Home for the Blind is blown up by a gag straight out of old Warner Bros. cartoons. The Apocalypse Corporation is to blame and, in another moment straight out of Tex Avery, endless goons pour out of a limo to attack Toxie in a bizarre fight scene-cum-dance routine that goes on for a lot too long. Apocalypse wants to rule the world (or something) by filling it with pollution, but they have to get Toxie out of the way to achieve their goals. 


Apparently Japan has the technology to destroy him, so they buy off Toxie’s sex-obsessed young lady psychiatrist who, during one of her therapy-cum-groping sessions, reveals to Toxie that his father was Japanese. Toxie heads to Japan for the kind of prolonged and 'hilarious' chase scenes fans of Troma movies will probably be used to. I have to admit that by the time Toxie was zooming down a high street in a hovercraft I was chuckling along with the completely potty action, but if you've never seen a Troma film before, you may think someone has knocked you out and filled your head with Smarties. Needless to say it all ends happily after Toxie has fought a Sumo wrestler and made it back to Tromaville where he gets to find out who is true father is and everyone can get back to the dayglo insanity that is everyday life in the strange world Lloyd Kaufman and his gang seem to have created.


88 Films give us a sparkling transfer of THE TOXIC AVENGER PART II on Blu-ray and the print looks uncut to me. There aren't as many extras as on their first TOXIC AVENGER disc, but we do get a feature length commentary from Lloyd Kaufman and two other chaps whose main function seems to be to remind him what's going on. There's also a brief Kaufman introduction and some short featurettes from various Troma acolytes and enthusiasts.



With their whacked out colour palette, insane dance routines, over the top non-acting and ludicrous, good-natured gore, the TOXIC AVENGER movies feel a bit like an attempt to make the old kids' US TV show H R PUFNSTUF for adults. They don't stand up to any serious criticism, and none should be attempted. Until 88 Films started releasing them I'd never watched a Troma film before and I have to say that, in very limited doses, they're actually quite a bit of fun. Any more than that, however, and you're liable to find yourself in the Troma Hospital for the Cinematically Insane. You have been warned. Once again, though, I have to say well done to 88 Films for making these movies available in what amount to definitive Blu-ray editions. After all, someone had to.

88 Films released the insanity that is Troma's THE TOXIC AVENGER PART II on Region B Blu-ray on 17th November 2014

Monday, 17 November 2014

Out of the Unknown (1965 -1971)


Wow.
I have just finished going through this massive seven disc set from the BFI, and, in a nutshell, that's what I think of it. Of course, when reading that single word review of this quite remarkable piece of work, one needs to bear in mind that I am a huge fan of British television science fiction, and that this particular series has achieved something approaching near mythical cult status over the years, with bootleg copies regularly changing hands at conventions. You can throw all those inferior versions away, now, because nobody could treat the existing material any better than the BFI has done here.


For those unfamiliar with this programme, OUT OF THE UNKNOWN ran on BBC2 from 1965 until 1971 for a total of four series - the first two in black and white, and then switching to colour in 1969. Because of the BBC's inconsistent policy of wiping old material not all of the episodes survive with, bizarrely enough, the colour episodes having come off the worst. What remains, however, is some of the most literate science fiction ever filmed, with stories by Asimov, Ballard, Wyndham, Pohl, Kornbluth, Brunner and other SF greats being included. In most cases the writing, acting, and behind the screen talent outshines the clunky limitations of the BBC's technical abilities (obvious especially in the early episodes) but as long as you can get past that there's an absolute treasure trove of intelligent television drama to be discovered here.


The ten surviving episodes of series one are spread over the first three discs. The show kicks off with John Wyndham's No Place Like Earth. Earth has been destroyed. Should itinerant Terence Morgan settle down on Mars with lovely local girl Hannah Gordon? Or should he join the recruiting drive to go and work on Venus? This is a story that goes rather overboard with its political ranting in the second half, and apparently it was placed first so the series would kick off with a 'name' author. Far better, and definitely the place to start if you're unsure whether you'll like the show, is the second story The Counterfeit Man. Basically John Carpenter's THE THING in space, this one stars David Hemmings as a member of a ship's crew who may have been replaced by an alien. The only way to determine if he's human or not is to psychologically torture him and examine his reactions. It's a fantastic episode with excellent acting across the board and an ending that will leave you open-mouthed - I'm not saying any more than that. 


There's a bit of a dip next with Stranger in the Family, then it's back to top quality with Asimov's The Dead Past, and William Tenn's even better Time in Advance, where Edward Judd has served his time out for murder before committing it, and returns to earth now able to kill someone without any consequence. Mike Pratt is his chum who has the same privilege. The story does a fine job of examining all the possible alternatives such a situation could bring, and this is another one with as gobsmacking an ending as The Counterfeit Man. It's black comedy next with Milo O'Shea growing killer plants in his back garden with 'Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come...?' before more Asimov with Sucker Bait, John Brunner's harrowing Some Lapse of Time and J G Ballard's clever (for its time) Thirteen to Centaurus. Fred Pohl's The Midas Plague finished off disc 3 with Graham Stark getting robots drunk in another comedy.


There are only four surviving episodes of Series 2 and these are on disc 4. The best is E M Forster's The Machine Stops with Yvonne Mitchell and Michael Gothard but J B Priestley's (!) adaptation of Level 7 and Fred Pohl's Tunnel Under the World are worth watching as well.
Disc 5 gives us Series 3. There is only one actual surviving episode and it's a good one - John Brunner's The Last Lonely Man. When you die, as long as you have a 'contact' all your thoughts and urges get transferred to a living person. George Cole makes the mistake of being lonely Peter Halliday's contact and when the man kills himself Cole becomes swamped with the man’s intrusive thoughts and obsessions. 


The next two episodes on this disc are reconstructions, and this is where all the work that has gone into this set really becomes apparent. Someone has sat down with the surviving audio tracks of Clifford Simak's Beach Head and Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun and matched the action to surviving production stills and newly created CGI. This is a remarkable achievement and, while it feels a bit odd at first, you quickly get used to it and the stories are so powerful you don't really mind. Disc 5 is rounded out by Cyril Kornbluth's Little Black Bag, of which only about 20 minutes survives


Disc 6 gives us a reconstruction of Rog Phillips' The Yellow Pill before we move onto Series 4, where the emphasis was changed from SF to horror. To Lay A Ghost earns the distinction of being one of the few 1970s episodes of TV horror to properly disturb me. In fact I still can't decide if the ending is just unbelievably inappropriate or shockingly original. On her way home from school sixth-former Lesley Anne-Down is raped. A couple of year later, she and her husband move into a 1970s BritHorrorTV Farmhouse and there's a ghost. But why is it there? I'll leave you to discover the rest of it for yourself - if you've the nerve.  


Otherwise Series 4 continues with This Body Is Mine - a fine black comedy with scientist John Carson switching bodies with industrialist Jack Hedley. Both actors have a whale of a time and after To Lay A Ghost this one was most welcome. Deathday is by Brian Hayles but has a Ramsey Campbell vibe as Robert Lang is haunted by a doppelgänger. In Welcome Home, Anthony Ainley arrives at his cottage after an accident to find no-one remembers him, and The Man in My Head details a military experiment in psychology. Disc 7 finished with a reconstruction of The Uninvited and the documentary Return to the Unknown which is 45 minutes of interview and scraps of footage from lost episodes. I was going to skip it but I was very glad I didn't.
        So there we are. I've gone on for far too long and haven’t even mentioned the commentaries, interviews, still galleries and the booklet that comes with the discs. The BFI's OUT OF THE UNKNOWN set is a truly remarkable achievement, and the shining jewel in their crown of science fiction releases. Anyone interested in the history of British SF, and for that matter British TV, needs to watch this, and then weep that we would never see the like of it today. The DVD release of the year. 
         Wow.

The BFI are releasing the television gold that is OUT OF THE UNKNOWN on Region 2 DVD on 24th November 2014

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Trancers (1985)


Jack Deth is back and he's never been here before! 
Quite possibly the epitome of all that was good about the direct-to-video revolution of the mid 1980s, Charles Band's quasi TERMINATOR/BACK TO THE FUTURE ripoff is as evocative of that decade as the movies of Cameron & Zemeckis. But on a lower budget. Much, much lower. Coming out on UK VHS on the classic Entertainment In Video label (a mark of not so much quality as quirkiness it has to be said) TRANCERS was one of a series of Band epics that kept teenagers of that era enthralled and entertained with their comic-book storylines, fun character acting, decent Richard Band music scores and (ahem) brief running time. 

    
       Charles Band, Empire Pictures, and Entertainment In Video were an important part of the exploitation scene back then, and for many of us SF & horror-hungry fans of the era, films like TRANCERS, ELIMINATORS and ROBOT HOLOCAUST helped while away many a dull Sunday afternoon when the only alternatives in the video shop were versions of VIDEODROME where you didn't even get to see Barry Convex explode or HALLOWEEN III with all the best bits cut out. Of all of them, TRANCERS was probably the best, and now 88 Films, the natural successor to Entertainment in Video if there ever was one, is about to bring it out on Blu-ray.


In the year 2247 Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson doing his Chandleresque best) is a cop pursuing a villain called Whistler (Michael Stefani), who has the ability to ‘trance’ weak-willed humans and turn them into crazed zombies who do his bidding. When Whistler travels in time back to 1985 and starts bumping off the relatives of the future High Council, Deth follows in an attempt to stop him and bring him back to his own time. 


TRANCERS is a lot of time-travelling fun, benefiting from good performances (especially Thomerson, who gives it his all, and Helen Hunt in an early role as his girfriend), a crisp and witty script from Danny Bilson and Paul de Meo, and a minimalist but bouncy action music score from British composers Mark Ryder and Phil Davies. Some of the set pieces are inspired (“There’s trouble at the North Pole!”) and everything moves along at a fine clip. It’s probably Charles Band’s best film as a director, even if, like so many of his pictures, it barely qualifies as a feature, having a running time near the 75 minute mark.


But the fun doesn’t end there. One of the extras on the disc is TRANCERS: CITY OF LOST ANGELS, aka TRANCERS 1.5. A previously ‘lost’ 25 minutes segment of the aborted anthology movie PULSE POUNDERS, TRANCERS 1.5 is also included, with pretty much all the same team back on board. Watch them back to back for 100 minutes of superb low-budget 1980s SF fun.
As well as the short, 88 Films’ Blu-ray includes a commentary track from Tim Thomerson, who remembers everything, and Charles Bans, who’s rather sweary. There’s also a short making of with Thomerson, Band, and the screenwriters; some brief archival interviews, a bit of rough footage from one of the DUNGEONMASTER movies, trailers for all five / six TRANCERS films, a rough-looking trailer for the original PULSE POUNDER films, and the ever-fun 88 Trailer Park. There’s a reversible sleeve and booklet notes as well. Overall it’s a hugely entertaining package that, with a fine 1.85:1 aspect ratio transfer, TRANCERS 1.5, and all the extras represents excellent value for money.
TRANCERS is one of the best films of its kind, and 88 Films’ Blu-ray release is THE very best release ever of TRANCERS. Jack Deth is back - and he’s never looked so good. 

88 Films are releasing Charles Band's TRANCERS on Blu-ray on 24th November 2014. If you're reading this from the future you'll already know how good it looks. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Out of this World - Little Lost Robot (1962)


The BFI continues its highly praiseworthy practice of releasing obscure and hard-to-see British TV Sci Fi to DVD with this set, which gives us the only remaining complete episode known to exist of the 1962 ABC TV series OUT OF THIS WORLD, as well as a few extra bits and pieces. OUT OF THIS WORLD predated the BBC SF anthology series OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, which came along a couple of years later. As complete a set as is possible of that programme is also forthcoming from the BFI, and so is a review of it on this site. In fact with the current crop of Network releases House of Mortal Cinema is having a bit of a mini 1960s BritSF season on its own.


But back to OUT OF THIS WORLD. Boris Karloff hosted the programme, and while his subsequent similar duties on the US series THRILLER seemed a natural part of the show, his appearance here in a dinner suit surrounded by 'futuristic' (for 1962) computers is anachronistic enough to feel just a little bit odd. A few words from him, and then we're into LITTLE LOST ROBOT, adapted for TV from a short story by Isaac Asimov. Anyone familiar with that author's work will be unsurprised to hear that his 'Three Laws of Robotics' play a major part here. In a space station near Saturn, a modified server robot has gone rogue and hidden itself in a group of twenty other robots waiting to be shipped out for a mission elsewhere. The problem is that the rogue robot has been altered so that it does not obey part of the second law of robotics - that which states that a robot will never allow a human to be harmed. The topmost robot psychologist is called in and devices a number of tests for the robots to try and determine the odd one out.



As usual with British SF TV of the early 1960s, the clunkiness of the production is saved by the acting and writing. Boom mikes swing in and out of view, and the sets and costumes are of the Fairy Liquid bottle and egg box variety, but anyone with an interest in obscure SF of the period will want to watch this. Fans of British horror films will also want to give it a look as the programme boasts performances from Clifford Evans (Hammer's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), Maxine Audley (FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) and Gerald Flood (Pete Walker's FRIGHTMARE).


The BFI's transfer is eminently watchable, and looks as good as LITTLE LOST ROBOT is ever likely to get. There's also a VidFIRE version intended to recreate the studio feel of the original, but on our HD TV there didn't seem to be much difference. Other extras include two audio-only episodes (ie only the soundtracks remain of these). They are COLD EQUATIONS, starring Jane Asher and Peter Wyngarde, and IMPOSTER which is a Terry Nation adaptation of a Philip K Dick story. Sound only is never the best way to enjoy something made for television, but it's surprisingly enjoyable to sit back, dim the lights, and wonder what might be going on onscreen - after all, your imagination is bound to have a better budget than the series would have been saddled with, and in colour, too! 



There's also a downloadable pdf of the script for DUMB MARTIAN, an episode adapted from a John Wyndham story. LITTLE LOST ROBOT also gets a commentary track from Leonard White and Mark Ward moderated by Toby Hadoke. A fully illustrated booklet about the series is also included. It's not very much of OUT OF THIS WORLD, but it's much better than nothing at all. Once again, well done BFI.

The BFI will be releasing OUT OF THIS WORLD: LITTLE LOST ROBOT on Region 2 DVD on 24th November 2014

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Invasion (1966)


Network continues its valuable work releasing obscure British second features to DVD with this low key black and white science fiction effort from 1966.
Anthony Sharp and his drunk girlfriend / bit on the side are driving down a country road when they pass through a fog-patch-that’s-actually-spaceship-smoke and hit a man wearing a rubber suit. They bundle him into the back of their car and take him to the local hospital, where Dr Edward Judd draws some blood which turns out to be like nothing human, and takes some X-rays which show a metal plate embedded in his brain. Putting blood and brain together hospital staff come to the conclusion that the accident victim is Not of This Earth.    


Meanwhile, the army has been tracking something odd on their radar, something odd enough to distract them from reading lurid thrillers ('The G String Murders' complete with cover to match) and get out in the field to look for a spaceship. Meanwhile in the hospital the alien comes round and claims he's in charge of two prisoners who have escaped. The temperature of the hospital starts to rise, and a low budget invisible barrier prevents anyone from leaving. There are lady aliens in the surrounding woods as well, but are they the villains our patient claims them to be?


INVASION isn't at all bad, even if it isn't actually about an invasion. Robert Holmes, one of the best writers of classic Dr Who, provides the original story (and apparently rewrote it to become the Jon Pertwee story Spearhead From Space) and, like many movies of this period, the low budget helps give the film a gritty feel. Performances are all fine, with plenty of familiar faces for fans of classic low budget British stuff, and the direction by Alan Bridges is actually quite restrained. The effects are minimal and the model work is sub sub Gerry Anderson but that’s not really the point of the picture. 


         Bernard Ebbinghouse (GIRLY, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS) delivers a surprisingly otherworldly and spooky score in places, and overall this is a minor but still impressive effort. INVASION is neither as engrossing nor as stylish as John Krish’s UNEARTHLY STRANGER (also out from Network) but it's still pretty good, and anyone with an interest in independent British SF movies of the 1960s is going to want to see it.
Network's DVD transfer is fine and in 1.66:1 aspect. There's a trailer and a still gallery for extras and that's it, but like many of the similar releases Network is bringing out, having the film itself on disc is enough.   

Network released INVASION on Region 2 DVD on 3rd November 2014

Monday, 3 November 2014

Unearthly Stranger (1964)


Network continues its series of obscure British fantasy films I've never heard of before with its new Blu-ray and DVD release of John Krish's UNEARTHLY STRANGER. It's a zero budget B-movie programmer that's low on spectacle but high on talent, and anyone interested in the history of British science fiction movies will want to give it a watch.


After the unexpected death of Professor Munro (Warren Mitchell, who lasts long enough to give us a few words in a Scottish accent before clutching his head and falling across his desk) Dr Mark Davidson (John Neville) is assigned to replace him as the principle researcher in a government project intended to transport the consciousness of man across space using simple concentration. It soon becomes apparent that Munroe's death was anything but natural, and that it might be linked to his solving part of a formula that could enable the experiment to succeed. Meanwhile, Mark also happens to be enjoying newly married life to his pretty wife who never blinks and whom he met on an isolated road in Switzerland. She can also taking roasts out of the oven without the aid of gloves, cries tears that burn her face, and she can terrify a playground full of children from twenty yards away.


What's going on? I won't say anymore because the screenplay is fun and full of twists and turns that I didn't see coming. I also didn't expect it to be by Rex Carlton who wrote THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE and BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE for Al Adamson. A career high for him, then, but that wouldn't be difficult. In fact despite the lack of budget everyone involved with UNEARTHLY STRANGER seems to be on top form. It's directed by John Krish, who later earned the nickname 'Doctor Death' from his colleagues for his serious of grim and frequently upsetting public information films such as SEWING MACHINE, SEARCHING, and perhaps most memorable of all THE FINISHING LINE, about children playing on railway tracks. He shows a fine eye for noir-edged science fiction, and the scene with the children playing and suddenly becoming aware that something alien is watching them is a standout. Krish also worked on THE AVENGERS and wanted to do more movies. It's a great shame that he didn't as on the basis of this he might have been able to direct the ultimate British take on Jack Finney's THE BODY SNATCHERS.


        Acting is also fine, as one might expect from John Neville, Jean Marsh, Patrick Newell and, as Neville's boss, Philip Stone in his first feature role and probably getting more to say here than anything else he's ever been in. Gabriella Licudi as Neville's wife is good as well, subtly underplaying the fact that she's not at all what she seems to be.
Network's Blu-ray transfer of UNEARTHLY STRANGER is, on the whole, very fine indeed for a neglected 1960s programmer. There are a few scratches here and there but they're not going to impair your enjoyment of this. Extras are limited to a trailer and a still gallery but to be honest we should be grateful this film is available at all.



Britain made quite a few science fiction films in the 1960s, some of which were pretty terrible (and often made by Amicus - step forward THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and THE TERRORNAUTS). Some of the better and more interesting titles from this period were made by tiny companies which lasted little longer than the running time of the pictures they made. Consequently many of these films seem to have almost disappeared. UNEARTHLY STRANGER is definitely one, and congratulations to Network for bringing it out.

Network are releasing John Krish's UNEARTHLY STRANGER on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 3rd November 2014

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)



It’s hard to believe it’s now forty years since the Greater London Council felt able to grant an ‘X’ certificate to Tobe Hooper’s seminal, relentless, gut-churning horror picture, while it remained banned in the rest of the UK. Since then a lot has changed, but it’s a delight to report that Hooper’s film hasn’t. In fact if anything, the numerous sequels, retreads, revisions and remakes have only served to prove how very good a film it is. Its own director has never come close to reproducing the sense of horror some of the scenes are still capable of evoking, and the movie can in many ways be considered a career best for all concerned. Over the years since it was first released THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (as the onscreen title would have it) has become a classic, not just of the horror genre but of cinema, such that it’s hard to believe there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know what the film is about.


Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul Partain) and her hippy friends travel in their hippy bus to visit the grave of Sally’s grandfather. Something horrible has been left in the graveyard and it’s virtually the first thing we see in the film (and all the more drippy in Blu-ray). They pick up a deranged hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whom they quickly dump, and when they run out of petrol they call at a house that just happens to be home to a family of crazed ex-slaughterhouse employees. They get bumped off one by one until only Sally is left to be served up as a potential dinner to their one hundred year plus year old grandpa. 


Imitated to well past the point when people should have just given up and never, ever equalled, all the rip-off merchants missed the point of TCM, just like they missed the point of John Carpenter’s later HALLOWEEN. Yes, there are murders and yes, the family are raving mad, but Hooper’s film gets everything right that TCM’s imitators either got wrong or couldn’t be bothered with. The killings are probably the most horrible bloodless deaths I’ve still ever seen in a film, and the true horror comes not from excessive blood and gore, but from the implication of what these people have been doing and how they lead what to them is a normal life. Some absolutely brilliant editing helps as well. Then there’s the ‘music’ - never have scrapes, atonal noises and deep synthesised buzzing sounds been so well used in a genre film. 


Second Sight’s Blu-ray is spot on. For those of you worried that a Blu-ray transfer would make the image look too clean and sparkling worry not - this is the TCM you know and love and are terrified by every time you watch it - with every bit of grain and grunge preserved. I suspect this is the best they could get the film to look and if that’s the case we can be grateful - TCM shouldn’t ever look pristine and this transfer does it perfect justice.


There are more extras than can fit on a single Blu-ray disc and so we have two. TCM has been released so many times that the extras are now starting to compete with LORD OF THE RINGS. So what’s new on this version? Well, we get two new commentary tracks - one from Tobe Hooper and another featuring Daniel Pearl (DP), Ted Nicolaou (sound recorder) and J Larry Carroll (editor). There’s also a new short interview with Carroll and another with John Dugan, who played Grandpa. Both a worth a look, with the Dugan one funny and touching by turns. ‘Horror’s Hallowed Grounds’ is a 2006 edition of a TV programme in which the TCM locations  are visited, and there are some newly found deleted scenes and out-takes as well.


Other extras ported over from previous releases include David Gregory’s documentary ‘The Shocking Truth’ and two commentary tracks - one with Hooper, Hansen and Pearl, the other with Marilyn Burns, actors Allen Danziger and Paul Partain, and art director Bob Burns. There are also interviews with Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel, Teri McMinn and production manager Ron Bozman, a tour of the TCM house with Gunnar Hansen, the ‘Flesh Wounds’ featurette and assorted deleted scenes, out-takes, trailers, TV and radio spots. Oh, and if you feel so inclined, it all comes in a lovely steelbook - what more could you possibly want? 

Second Sight are releasing Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE on Region B Blu-ray in a two-disc limited edition steelbook and two-disc standard edition formats on 17th November 2014