As I started pulling together this month’s column, I hit a bit of a snag. The issue was not that of writer’s block or lack of interest. Nope, it was actually the exact opposite—there was too much good stuff to talk about. And it made me dash my original plans of focusing on a singular theme. Per that, this time out you get an iconic punk rock doc, loads of gothic-horror goodies, a couple exploitation gems, a few lost classics and some newer films of the indie variety to chew on. Have at it.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection
Ninja director Penelope Spheeris’ work has been pretty patchy when it comes to home video releases. Many of her less-than-mainstream films have been bootlegged on shoddy DVD and VHS for years. With high demand always a factor, Spheeris’ Decline series has particularly been the subject of illegal, subpar reproductions for decades.That’s all changed with the recent release of the entire series on Blu-ray from the insightful minds at Shout! Factory.
The first installment, the aptly titled Decline of Western Civilization was a major stepping stone in the solidification of American punk rock. Spheeris’ documentary centers on the life and times of a few LA bands from 1979-80, channeling the ups and downs of the groups and their followers into a compelling narrative. Bands featured include Black Flag, Germs, X, Alice Bag Band, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, and Fear. Black Flag disciples will note the early lineup, prior to Henry Rollins joining the fold. It’s a fascinating look at the scene, prior to the staunchly more macho hardcore movement which took LA punk by storm a few years later.
Interviews with the artists and fans shed a lot of light on the mythology of the period. One gets the sense that in spite of early punk’s political and sociological sentiments, most of the participants here just want to get drunk and hang out, and are seemingly uninterested in what their heroes have to say. Even the late, great Darby Crash of the Germs comes across as less of a folk hero than an incoherent street urchin. That said, the Germs’ live performance is as raucous and unhinged as imaginable.
Decline II: The Metal Years focuses Spheeris’ lens on the pop-metal scene in Hollywood of the later ‘80s. In similar fashion to the first installment, many of the musicians and fans come across as boneheaded and drunk, the difference here being that instead of banter about not fitting in with society, this crowd is all about excess: money, women and fame. The film also features appearances from real-life rock stars like Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy and Megadeth, plus members from KISS and Aerosmith. Where the first Decline film seemed sincere in its documentation of the early punk scene, this installment makes a joke out of its subjects, portraying the metal movement as a seamy caricature of its former self. Virtually no one remains unscathed; Ozzy looks foolish, Lemmy comes across as less-than-brilliant and Paul Stanley of KISS is cheesy as all hell while flanked in bed by a throng of staged groupies.
While the first film highlights some true icons of the LA punk scene, The Metal Years is brimming with mostly also-rans—London, Lizzy Borden and Odin—bands that had club followings but fell far short of the finish line. The most infamous scene of the film is a shot of WASP guitarist Chris Holmes drinking vodka in the pool with his mother a few feet away, blathering on about how shitty his life is. While it was cited an example of Sunset Strip excess at the time, it does cut through the crap and show the human side of its subject, something that the film lacks in most other spots.
Decline III fast-forwards to late-’90s LA, chronicling the day-to-day existence of a clutch of runaways, gutter punks and squatters. The tone and feel of this installment is grittier and more sobering than the first two; some of its subjects teetering on the edge of existence. Performances include the likes of Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression and The Resistance, the latter being a live stand-out. Where the other two films created a stir upon release, Decline III never really made it out of the gate due to distribution issues and its inclusion here marks its official debut for general release.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection looks fantastic in high-definition Blu-ray, and this set includes loads of extras, including extended interviews, unreleased clips and an informative book. (Shout! Factory)
As part of its gothic-horror Blu-ray collection, Kino Lorber Films has recently released a clutch of killer flicks from the ‘60s and ‘70s, including a pair from Italian horror maestro, director Mario Bava.
Black Sabbath (1963) is anthology film containing three separate segments. Starring Boris Karloff, this version was geared for American audiences and features a narrated introduction by Karloff that doesn’t exist on the original version. The best of the three is The Telephone, which follows a young call girl harassed by a seemingly dead man by phone, who orders her to remove her clothes. Soon, she calls a female friend over who may have something to do with the proceedings. Overall, Black Sabbath’s eerie feel and vivid color palette would prove to be influential on hordes Italian giallo horror films to follow, as well as one of our favorite bands.
The breakthrough Black Sunday (1960) is one of Bava’s true masterpieces. The films stars horror fave Barbara Steele as a condemned witch brought back to wreak havoc on the descendants of her earlier tormentors. Shot in stark black and white, the gothic architecture, skewed landscapes and pristine costumes make for an atmospheric treat. Steele’s performance in dual roles is a standout, and helped cement the actress’ place in horror lore.
While both Bava films look very good in hi-def, these American versions pale in comparison to their Italian counterparts. The dubbing, narration and trimmed scenes tend to quell some of the atmospherics, which, especially in the case of The Telephone, dampen its overall effect. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have these on Blu-ray, and the bonus documentaries make for excellent additions. (Kino Lorber)
The Crimson Cult
Know as Curse of the Crimson Altar overseas, this somewhat obscure 1968 film has the distinction of boasting three horror icons: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele. Trouble was, they have scant scenes together. While similar in theme to Black Sunday (an ancient witch seeks revenge from beyond), the film is a bit of a hodgepodge of gothic horror and far-out psychedelia, which only really gels in the dream sequences on said altar. It’s still an eye-catching view and is now available for the first time ever in these parts on shiny Blu-Ray. (Kino Lorber)
Another lost gothic goodie, this one stars Vincent Price and veteran horror actor Peter Cushing. Price hams it up as the hit character Dr. Death, only to have his acting career cut short in a mental institution after the death of his fiancé. Upon his return, he is befriended by old colleague Herbert (Cushing), and this is where the true skullfuckery begins.
This 1974 film is slightly raunchier than its ‘60s counterparts, and Price is as campy as ever the bemused former actor, moping around as he pines for the glory days of yore. Cushing is effective as always as the conniving friend and while it’s not one of either’s shining moments, it works well as a dark comedy of sorts. (Kino Lorber)
This recent film puts a Southern Gothic spin on the Carmilla lesbian-vampire tale of French horror lore. Here, a woman in a rural town meets a young drifter in search of clues to her mother’s disappearance. Soon, secrets come out that threaten to destroy the lot of them. Director Brent Wood imbues the proceedings with a quiet dread that relies upon nuance and subtle twists to move the story along. And it works, in a slow-building, mildly eerie fashion. (Kino Lorber)
Comet is an interesting one. This indie film stars Justin Long (Dodgeball) and Emmy Rossum (Shameless) as star-crossed lovers involved with each other over the course of six criss-crossed years. The overly witty and talkative couple gets a bit grating at times (think Woody Allen meets Tarantino with a dash of The OC). But, director Sam Esmail’s concept of shifts in time and natural phenomena (the couple met during a meteor shower) make this little film an intriguing view. Is it all a dream, or dueling alternative universes? You be the judge. (IFC)
Black Veil Brides – Alive And Burning
The ‘80s return with this live concert film. Black Veil Brides has bucked the status quo with its over-the-top image and energized live shows, shedding its early “core” affections in the process. Alive And Burning captures the band at the top of its game in a crowded Hollywood theater setting, treating the crowd to close to 20 numbers, including “Knives And Pens,” “Fallen Angels,” “Faithless” and “The End.” The visual and aural quality of the film is excellent, and the band’s performance is hungry and alive, which harkens back to the glory days of big production…and even bigger hair. (Eagle)
A veteran cop gets pulled in to investigate a series of murders caused by some type of wild animal. But things go much deeper than a mere animal attack—there are political implications, angry Native Americans and a mythical wolf spirit. Contrary to initial impressions, the long-out-of-print Wolfen (1981) is not a werewolf movie, but rather one that touches on faux-Indian lore to move the story along. Veteran Brit actor Albert Finney plays the lead cop in this conspiracy thriller—that’s a little light on horror, but rife with unexpected twists. (Warner Archive)
The Last Survivors
Oddly, this post-apocalyptic-wasteland feature has nothing to do with nuclear holocaust. The culprit here is a massive drought—one we Californians can relate to right about now. Kendal and her cohorts live in an abandoned farmhouse with a secret stash of H2O, and all is well until a team of ruthless mercenaries come to take it. Part Mad Max, part Western, this low-budget flick thrives on pace and tension, putting the young Kendal in the hot seat…a clever twist on gender roles and hero perceptions. (Dark Sky)
Satan Met A Lady
In spite of its title, this film has nothing to do with the occult, vintage motorcycle gangs or otherwise. Instead, the 1936 film was based on the novel The Maltese Falcon and would be remade in earnest a few years later, becoming one of the most revered entries in film history. Starring Bette Davis, Satan Met A Lady would soon become a thorn in Warner Bros. side, as no one associated with it—including Davis—liked it or wanted to be connected in any way. Warner Archive has finally made the film available in manufactured-on-demand format, and it’s a worthy view for those who like their crime with a little quirk, and a heaping dose of cold black and white. (Warner Archive)
Three Bites of the Apple
Just like the Austin Powers film series implies, the various swinging ‘60s trends and clichés provided loads of comic inspiration and this lost 1967 film has it going in spades. When a British ne’er-do-well wins big at a casino in the Riviera, he is soon preyed upon by a friendly female and her counterpart with designs of their own. Brimming with colorful ‘60s accents and comedic bits, it’s an entertaining ride and one that makes its home-video debut right here for the first time. (Warner Archive)
The Pact 2
With all these worthwhile flicks, there’s got to be at least one clunker, right? Where the first Pact film had a few purposeful shocks and an interesting premise, this sequel falls flat on all counts. For one, it’s way, way too slow, and not in an eerie, methodical, atmospheric way. And the acting comes across as wooden and uninspired. But most of all, the trite ending wraps everything up so predictably and conveniently that there’s no mystery or intrigue whatsoever. Pity, that, as the earlier film showed some promise. (IFC)
1990: The Bronx Warriors
Escape from the Bronx
The ‘70s and early ‘80s were a hotbed of Italian exploitation features, and director Enzo G. Castellari was one of the leading lights.1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) sought to capitalize on the success of post-apocalyptic films like Escape From New York and Mad Max, but with a trashier take on the proceedings. In the year 1990, the Bronx has become a lawless wasteland and when a wealthy Manhattanite arrives, her corrupt father sends a mercenary to retrieve her. But is he any match for gang leader “Trash” and his biker colleagues?
Escape from the Bronx (1983) keeps the dream alive as the gang fights off evil corporate interests that want to gentrify the place. All of the campy violence of both films can now be had in plush, new hi-def transfers, making the guns, blood and guts extra vivid. And both are the perfect introduction to the golden age of grind-house, Italian style. (Blue Underground)
One of the better SyFy Channel shows to come along, Helix surprised many of us with its original approach and unpredictable narrative. Season 2 sees the team of disease researchers/scientists dispatched to investigate an outbreak, which eventually leads them to a mysterious island and a fervent cult. The results are compelling and have a similar feel to some of the better Lost episodes. (Sony)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, send me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next month, JK.