Catacombs, Cellar Dweller, Charles Band, Contamination .7, Creepers, David Schmoller, Empire Pictures, Filmirage, Full Moon Pictures, Jeffrey Combs, Joe D'Amato, Ragewar, Scream Factory, Shout! Factory, The Dungeonmaster, third eye cinema podcast, Timothy Van Patten, Troll 2, Yvonne De Carlo
Since the collapse of the Roger Corman deal, things haven’t been looking quite as rosy on the Shout! Factory…excuse me, “Scream Factory” front.
While they’d managed to release a veritable truckload of films either long out of print or locked away to a virtual death sentence deep within the Sony/MGM vaults, things have slowed noticeably of late.
From long buried gems and clamored after obscurities, the focus appears to have shifted to the Bill Lustig model: like Anchor Bay and later Blue Underground, things quickly degenerated into a sideline of double (and even triple or quadruple in Lustig’s case) dips and minor upgrades. Great if you’re coming in really, really late to the game, but absurd for those of us who’ve been picking up DVDs more or less since the dawn of the medium.
Which would you rather have: something brand spanking new that you’ve read about or remember seeing in the days of your youth, finally getting a street date? Or the same movie you have on your shelf…possibly twice even, in a middling “upgrade” transfer to hi-def (which often enough tends to lose vibrancy of color or clarity in focus in the process – just check out one of those version comparison websites and scan the screenshots for yourselves!)
The answer is so obvious, it’s patently absurd, but there is a small market hungry for neverending tweaks and ‘upgrades’ who clamor loudly for the continuance of the practice. While it’s nice to have new releases in the best presentation possible, when it comes to the double dip thing, I really don’t get it, and don’t find that most rational fans do either.
So it is that we return to the Shout situation. While not all of their quality releases fell under the Corman aegis, the sad fact is that their best days appear to be behind them, with actual new discoveries slowing to a veritable trickle.
In fact, other than the X-Ray/Schizoid blu the other month and the long awaited The Horror Show which just streeted, the only place Shout is still releasing worthwhile non-double dip materials is in their cheapie 4 packs – in particular their two All Night Horror Marathons released to date.
A month or two back, we got The Outing (aka The Lamp) with The Godsend – one a classic 80’s bit of cheese with a cute redhead leading lady, the other a Scorpion style British/Aussie oddity featuring the ubiquitous David Hemmings that exploits the unusual looks of Donald Pleasance’s daughter. The other 2 films in the set were absolutely worthless (can we possibly emphasize further just how horribly worthless they were?), but you couldn’t knock the set for the price.
This time around, gems abound! Tapping very hard into the as yet unreleased Empire Pictures vault, we get no less than three pre-Full Moon Charles Band productions, plus one late period Joe D’Amato cheesefest. And all for $10 or less…when they try to charge $30 for double and triple dip reissues! Somebody explain to me what the hell is going on in the minds of the folks at Shout Factory…
For my first dive into the vault, I chose the nearly plotless horror comics turn real quickie Cellar Dweller (with a wordless introductory scene featuring Jeffrey Combs and a costarring turn by Bud the Chud’s Brian Robbins (the goofy guy with the Joker grin).
The plot could be written on a cocktail napkin. A Bernie Wrightson type made his signature creation come to life, and an industry-minded fangirl (think Phil Jimenez in relation to George Perez and you’ll get the idea) manages to release the creation once again. Mayhem breaks loose at the minimally casted art school (run by a rather beefy post-Lily Munster Yvonne deCarlo).
Silly, but more fun and atmospheric than, say, Evil Toons…
Then there was the Italian Contamination.7 (aka Creepers), which seems to be an unofficial Troll 3 (!) While certainly the least of all D’Amato Filmirage efforts, it bears many of the hallmarks of the films falling under that banner, such as Lenzi’s Hitcher in the Dark and Black Demons, latter Fulci or the many Sacchetti/Drudi scripted and/or directed American cast Italo-horrors of the late 80’s and early 90’s, namely awful non-actors, often hazy focus, ridiculous scripted lines and nearly zero budget for the titular monster.
In other words, pure camp gold.
It’s a sort of ersatz take on the enviro- or eco-horror so prevalent throughout the 70’s, where corporate/industrial runoff and experimentation results in chaos for those in the general vicinity. This time around, it’s radioactive dumping causing plant life to pull a Day of the Triffids, albeit in a more gruesome Italianate fashion.
The (eventual) leading lady is attractive enough, but her boyfriend is a complete dumbo, and it’s hard to stomach (pun intended) when she winds up gravid by him at the conclusion of the picture. The sheriff and officials overact to a degree the uninitiated might never believe possible and it is in this, more than any actual plot point, that it bears kinship to the notorious “best worst film ever made”, Troll 2.
Contamination .7 further bears the unusual distinction of being perhaps the first film chronologically to feature an obviously gay hero. Given the time in which it was made, this bit of a shocker is later “defused” by two coy sequences at the end of the film. The first of these comes in the form of a bit of dialogue when the character in question “saves the day” by deforesting the area with a construction crew, the motivation for which, he realizes with surprise, was in discovering that “I AM just like the rest of you after all” (ahem).
At the denouement a few minutes later, he further shocks his compatriots by announcing (quite out of the blue) the existence of an unseen wife…which clearly knocks them for a loop, and eats a good two or three minutes worth of dialogue and double take! Yeah…real subtle with the subtext, there, guys…
Heading back into the Empire archives, I next tapped into a bit of nostalgic hilarity I’ve been waiting for a release on for many a year – the Dungeonmaster.
Also known under the incredibly stupid and misleading moniker of “Ragewar” (the title under which it appears herein), the film features a cheesy 80’s Casio-driven synth score, a guy in goofy satin short shorts who obsesses over his job in IT (!) as the lead, and homely girls with great bodies who work it in aerobics togs and even strip off once in a while for the punters. What more do you need?
Richard “Bull” Moll is here under some really bad makeup, and boy, does Charlie Band love metal. This is the second time he’s included a metal band in one of his films (well, technically, this would be the first, in date of theatrical release), and this is definitely the funniest.
Blackie Lawless and W.A.S.P. are on hand to provide the entertainment, with an oddly extended, overly instrumental version of “Tormentor”. Blackie puts on an abbreviated version of the band’s standard stage show (i.e. no raw meat thrown to the audience), but boy, does he really camp it up for the cameras.
The only thing funnier than seeing Lawless do his best to look evil, crazed and intimidating for over 5 minutes of running time is watching just how much all those drunken Hollywood metal hooker types get into it, doing the world’s most inept job of acting scary. The barely controlled laughter on their faces and the bored “huh? What are you doing here?” reactions of the guys in the audience are absolutely priceless, particularly for those who’ve been there.
While the film is somewhat less than exciting plotwise (essentially consisting of a lame mental chess match of pocket calculator era “tech” vs. uber-cheesy sci-fi fantasy), it makes up for this in both atmosphere and in tapping into a number of 80’s film genres along the way. There’s a Mad Max sequence, at least one sword and sorcery effort, an urban slasher film bit and an Italian-style zombie picture in miniature all thrown into the mix, each helmed by a different director.
It’s not half as disjointed as it sounds, but is admittedly very juvenile and comic bookish in the end. The nerd beats Moll, wins his very average if not homely girlfriend and credits roll.
Finally, we come to the gem of the set – there’s no question that I saved the best for last.
1988’s Catacombs comes to us directed by David Schmoller, also responsible for one of my favorite domestically lensed no-budget pictures of the early 90’s, Netherworld. He is further notable as helming slasher fave Tourist Trap, late career Kinski stinker Crawlspace and the original Puppet Master – in all, a reasonably impressive resume for the genre, before jumping over to television work with the cheesy “billowing curtains, candles and saxophone” Zalman King and Andrew Blake worshipping softcore cable cop show Silk Stalkings.
As Schmoller tells in a fairly amusing commentary, this film was effectively locked down in a vault somewhere after Empire Pictures folded, with his neither having a copy or being able to screen it for distributors without forking over an exorbitant fee. As it never seems to have received a proper release before this, he considers Catacombs to be his “lost picture”.
Essentially a typical non-slasher horror picture of the period, where the film succeeds best is in its strong visuals and atmosphere.
Both location work and set design are positively stellar, and in a way reminiscent of both the Name of the Rose and Mario Baino’s Dark Waters, with the monastery serving a dual role as isolated setting (after all, who are by definition more cut off from the world at large than monks?) and housing for both ancient evil and larger metaphysical concerns so often the core thematic concern of the horror film and supernatural tale?
And then we come to the cast…
In an amusing bit of stunt casting, the ostensible lead role is taken by none other than “Salami” and partner to The Master himself, Timothy Van Patten. While I always enjoyed Van Patten, with his distinctly Brooklyn accent and goofy, likeable demeanor, this was not the train wreck of a performance I was expecting – if anything, he plays this one quite subdued.
While other Hollywood “names” are present (such as TV bit player standby Ian Abercrombie, also of the still-unreleased Blood Beach and Howling IV’s Jeremy West), the true stars of the film are European locals and a model turned starlet who was effectively forced on Schmoeller by the producer!
While all of the folks falling under the latter heading had careers both prior and subsequent to Catacombs, the bulk of their efforts were in the European orbit. The wonderful Vernon Dobtcheff (as American candy-loving Brother Timothy, the most level headed and likeable member of the monastery) returned to the cloth for the interesting Heath Ledger vehicle The Order, as did Feodor Chaliapan (walkman loving Brother Terrel, also of Argento’s Inferno, Kinski’s Paganini and Fulci’s the Eroticist), who did so for Soavi’s The Church.
Pretty Mapi Galan (as Antonia, who looks only more fetching with that Rogue-like grey streak in her hair at the conclusion of the film) played a part in the very sexy Guido Crepax inspired Italian television series Valentina (also unbelievably absent on DVD, despite a pair of episodes being edited into a Cinemax-aired film back in the early 90’s), but mainly concentrated on obscure Spanish pictures.
Former model Laura Schaefer, a stunning redhead who looks even sexier in her goth “possessed” phase, didn’t have much of a career, sadly enough – a few quick television bit parts and a Schmoeller-scripted “horror western” of the same year are pretty much all you get. While she didn’t exactly scream Oscar winning actress, she was more than aesthetic enough and appeared to have a pleasant persona onscreen – this viewer certainly appreciated her presence herein.
In sum, this is a fantastic set (cannot stress that point enough), and while I am forced to sit back and scratch my head in disbelief at Shout’s misguided belief that re-releases and middlebrow major studio “horrors” like Prison, Deadly Harvest or Death Valley are deserving of single release Blu treatment, while entertaining, new to the medium gems like the four films on this set (and both the Outing and the Godsend from the last one) are pushed out under the radar as low cost bargain bin detritus, as a buyer I certainly cannot fault the price point and value for the consumer these sets provide.
Aside from perhaps X-ray, this is the best Shout release since the glory days of the Corman collection…no backtalk, and no bones about it.