Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Lost Artwork of the VHS part 2

A long time ago, in a video store far far away…..

There was this video store called Paffi’s that my older sister and brother-in-law went to all the time. They were one of the few BETAMAX owners and Paffi’s was, I believe, the only BETA tape rental store in town. They also rented VHS which prompted my sis to let us have a free rental on her account. Not unusual back then because every video store was reaching out to new customers and a free rental gave you a chance to browse their shelves and possibly become a regular. It was at this video store that I came across one of the most infamous splatter flicks of the horror genre.

2000 Maniacs (1964) is the second installment in H.G. Lewis’ famed “blood trilogy” which began with Blood Feast (1963) and ended with Color Me Blood Red (1965). Cinematic masterpiece, no, video shelf eye catcher, yes!! I vividly remember seeing this title on the shelf. Its spine facing outward but it was at the end of the row so I saw the front first. The sight of the close up of a woman’s face with blood pouring from her mouth and dead eyes staring into nothingness pretty much stopped me in my tracks. When asked if we could rent this one, my mom responded with a resounding “No”.

With this box, you don’t really have a drawn cover. The still shot with the title superimposed over it does the trick. This was the way Comet Video presented their product. You also have to love the review quotes on the box as well. “Far more entertaining than anything John Carpenter and John Landis has directed” – Heavy Metal Magazine, Really? Are you sure you meant to say that about this movie? Just like any H.G. Lewis movie, this one is extremely low budget and not very well acted. It’s like watching a splatter version of F Troop. Still a lot of fun though. 

If the front of the box isn’t gruesome enough, the fine folks at Comet Video decided to add a few still shots from the movie on the back of the box. Interestingly they chose to show the before and after of two actresses in the movie. One gets her arm hacked off and the other, well we aren’t sure what happened to her but she is covered in blood so it must have been pretty nasty! It’s enough to warrant a rental in any case. Also notice the 70 minute run time on this one. Are you kidding me? 70 minutes is all Lewis could milk out of the storyline? Oh but wait! What’s that last bit of the synopsis in bold print? “A PARTY FAVORITE”, ohhhh well there ya have it! A must rent from the shelves of Paffi’s!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Lost Artwork of the VHS

In the early 1980’s, the home video market was just starting out. The concept of being able to go to a store, rent a video for the night and take it home to watch was a pretty nifty idea. This is something that we take for granted now with cable, satellite, internet and businesses like Netflix. But back then it was totally new and not everyone had the ability. However many “average joes” were able to take part in this little piece of home entertainment after a few years. As a kid, we got our first VCR around 1985 or so, I remember spending a lot of time browsing through the rental titles at several local video rental stores. What always caught my eye was the box art.

As important as movie poster art, the video rental box art was a key element in attracting patrons and enticing them to rent a movie and take it home for the evening. It was the box art that on many occasion told my brain “you must watch me!” Many times the box art was better than the movie it advertised. Sometimes the box art had nothing to do with the movie it contained! My favorite type of artwork could always seem to be found on the “big box” releases. These were movies that came in an oversized box and usually had a large clamshell case or plastic tray to hold the VHS tape. It seemed to me that “bigger was better” because it gave room for more detail and the mostly lurid artwork seemed to jump right off the shelf at you.

I thought it would be fun to pick a title and post my thoughts and some memories of these classic but not classy pieces of work. Consider this a “part one” of an ongoing series at the Celluloid Coffin. A retrospective of all things gaudy and horrific when it came to renting VHS back in the day.

“Make Them Die Slowly” was an Italian cannibal flick directed by Italian maestro of sleaze, Umberto Lenzi. Filmed in 1981 and released to home video shortly after, this big box terror was one of the most elusive rentals for me. No one had this one on their shelves and when asked if they would stock it, I was usually greeted with a solid “No”.  I finally rented it for the first time in 1989 while making my daily commute to a community college about 30 minutes away from my hometown.

The cover boasts a “Banned in 31 Countries” warning with the grisly visage of two women about to become some cannibal’s afternoon snack. A few glimpses of the film itself is presented half obscured by part of the title. A great concept in advertising since this gives you just enough of an idea the kind of horrors you are going to be bombarded with once you pop it in the VCR. “Make Then Die Slowly” (AKA Cannibal Ferox) was released on the Thriller Video label. They were famous for presenting horror films with celebrity host Elvira. Apparently Elvira screened this one and said heck no I ain’t hosting this piece of sludge because she is nowhere to be found on the cover art, probably not a bad idea on her part. For those who have never laid eyes to this little Italian gut muncher, the movie is chock full of politically incorrectness towards natives and women, is gory as all get out and even boasts many scenes of actual animal deaths. It other words, it’s pretty offensive to the average home video customer but a great way to waste 92 minutes for your average gore hound. What seals the rental deal for me is the big WARNING label on the back cover. 24, count em, 24 scenes of barbaric torture!!

Yeah… know I’m renting this!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell (1987)

There are some movie titles that come into my life, burrow a hole in my brain and take up permanent residence in my conciseness. Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell is one of those titles. It was the summer of 1988 and one of the local drug stores (People’s Drug I do believe) started to share its space with an Erol’s Video rental chain. I was very excited to say the least. After badgering my mom to join as I was only 16 and not old enough to open an account, she gave in. As I perused the horror section, my eyes landed on what looked like a comic book cover. The cover art grabbed my attention and then I flipped the box over and realized it was a collection of trailers! As I read the list of movies on the back cover I realized that about 95% of them I had never heard of! Jackpot!

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell starts out with a couple of zombies making their way into a movie theater. After picking up some tasty snacks at the concession stand, they make their way into the theater. They are soon joined by a crowd of zombies who have come to enjoy the cavalcade of trailers. The hosts of the show are a zombie (puppet) named Happy Goldsplatt and his friend (ventriloquist) Nick (Nick Pawlow). There is also Mad Ron who is the deranged film projectionist chained up in the projection room. What follows is a mind blowing collection of some of the greatest grindhouse trailers ever assembled. I knew I was in for a ride after the wisecracking Happy and Nick kick things off with the uncut trailer for I Drink Your Blood (1970).

It’s kind of hard to really “review” this video because there is no plot, just an hour and a half of blood soaked, carnage infested trailers. There is some lowbrow, corny jokes in between some of the trailers by Happy and Nick and a nifty ending that preaches the consequences of video piracy. Other than that, it’s pretty self explanatory. So let’s get to the importance of this little VHS gem.

As a fan of the horror genre and fledgling collector at the time, this video was like a checklist of movies I needed to see and add to my ever growing collection. The video presents some classics that roll of the tongue with ease such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973). It also showcases some of the greatest B-Z grade horror films as well. Films not only from the U.S. but many from Spain, Italy even Mexico and the Philippines. I was introduced to such titles as The Blood Spattered Bride (1972), Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), Night of the Bloody Apes (1969), Three on a Meathook (1975), Cannibal Girls (1973), Deep Red (1975) and a 3-D T&A film entitled Wildcat Women (1975). This trailer is even presented in anaglyphic 3-D format!

There are plenty of other titles on this compilation as well but I think this gives you an idea of what you are in for when you take a peek at this piece of video history. This video really is the epitome of 60's and 70's splatter, grindhouse, exploitaion cinema. I highly recommend spending the time to google the title as it is available on a quality DVD as an “Extra Mad Edition”. This is one DVD that I need to pick up so that I can lay my old VHS to rest on the shelf. If you are on Facebook you can find Mad Ron as well as some of the cast and crew! 


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Salem's Lot (1979)

Anyone who grew up in the 70’s remembers this epic made for television movie event. At the time I had no idea who Stephen King was but would never forget the name after seeing one of the scariest film adaptations of King’s work.

Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot after a long absence to work on a book that he is writing. His first stop on arrival is the old Marsten house situated up on a hill at the edge of town. This house is the heart and soul of the book he is writing and the home of a childhood trauma that Ben still deals with in his adult life. The Marsten house is your typical “haunted house” that every small town has had at some point in its existence. It is also home to a Mr. Straker, a British antiques dealer played masterfully by James Mason. Ben soon finds a room to rent and quickly makes the acquaintance of Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), the two become romantically involved of course. After a large crate is delivered to the Marsten house, several townsfolk disappear or become severely ill and die mysteriously. It is soon discovered that the crate contained a vampire. This vampire is actually Straker’s business partner, Mr. Barlow.

The vampire plague starts to spread throughout Salem’s Lot. Ben teams up with Susan’s father, Dr. Norton (Ed Flanders) and teenager Mark (Lance Kerwin) to infiltrate the old Marsten house, kill Straker and drive a stake through the heart of the ancient vampire, Barlow. They succeed in one wonderfully filmed finale that ends with the Marsten house and nest of vampires being set on fire. Ben and Mark escape the house but know that they will be pursued by any surviving vampires. Two years later we find them still on the run in Guatemala. Here they are confronted by Susan, Ben’s love interest. She has become a vampire herself and attempts to vampirize Ben. He stakes her and leaves the cottage that he and Mark were staying in to continue their flight from the vampires.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist), King’s book is fully brought to undead life. The first part of the film, being that this was originally presented as a two nighter on television, concentrates on developing the characters of the story. Not just the main characters but also some rather minor characters as well. Hooper carries out the task without becoming uninteresting. There are a couple of sub plots in the first part concerning Susan’s ex-boyfriend Ned Tebbets and an affair between realtor Larry Crockett and “Boom Boom” Bonnie Sawyer. There is not a dull moment in the little town of Salem’s Lot.

Hooper picks up the pace within the last 40 minutes of part one when a child goes missing. The little boy, Ralphie Glick, begins to visit his older brother Danny at night. His nocturnal callings are accompanied by a strange mist while Ralphie appears floating within and scratching at the window asking to be let in. This scene and another with the vampirized Danny were filmed by placing the actors on a boom crane and filming the sequence backwards, making it all the more eerie. If there is one scene in this movie that everyone remembers and still gets freaked out over, its always one of the of the window scenes! I personally never looked out the window at night the same way again. The vampire makeup looks very creepy as well. This would be my first memory of seeing a vampire on television that really looked scary. Large fangs and yellow, cat like, reflective contact lenses were worn and make the vampire completely believable and frightening. Hooper also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) in the design of the head vampire, Kurt Barlow. Barlow is bald, pointed eared and has rat like fangs. His complexion is blue, why I’m not so sure but it is truly one ugly and frightening blood sucker.

The second part of the movie really moves along at a great clip. Ben and former teacher Jason Burke have begun to put two and two together when local Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis nails his role in this one!) shows up feeling extremely drained of life. Two marks on the neck is all Burke needs to see to know what is going on. The scene where Burke confronts Mike after fully turning into a vampire is another memorable scene. Lewis plays the part of a taunting vampire to the hilt. He hisses and contorts his body to make himself look taller and extremely menacing is some brilliant acting on Lewis’ part. Another memorable scene has Ben confronted by the vampire visage of Mrs. Glick. As she lay dead on the morgue slab, she suddenly resuscitates into her new found “life”. Ben creating a crucifix out of tongue depressors  and medical tape, while trying to recite the 23rd Psalm is one of my favorite scenes from the movie but not my all time favorite which I will get to in just a moment.

Another aspect of the second part is Hooper’s use of silence. The movie becomes quiet and uneasiness settles in. This is used to great extent and suddenly things like a phone ringing become shockingly loud. Hey it was enough to make me jump several times and I’m pushing 40 years old!

The finale in the Marsten house is one of the great payoffs in television horror. The set is perfectly constructed. It really looks like no one has stepped foot inside in over 20 plus years. When Ben and Mark finally locate the root cellar hiding place of the vampire we also discover that the other vampirized locals reside there as well. While Ben is staking Barlow, Hooper continues to interject a shot of Mark beside the cellar door looking on in horror. In the background of this shot, we slowly see the other vampires crawling towards Mark, their eyes glowing and their hisses just audible enough to make you want to shout “hey kid turn around!”. Mark does turn around in time to shut the door and jam it with a screwdriver. Barlow’s death is filmed like a good old fashioned vampire movie should be in the late 70’s. Barlow slowly decomposes via the overlay of exposures reminiscent of the old Hammer films, a great way to lay the vampire to rest in my opinion.

If you have never seen the full 183 minutes of Salem’s Lot, I highly recommend doing so. I found my copy at my local Big Lots for three bucks. A theatrical cut was released entitled Salem’s Lot: The Movie, clocking in at 112 minutes but seems lacking in many aspects, especially in the beginning and ending sequences. This one needs to be seen in its full glory. The most frightening three hours you can spend in the dark!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quatermass and the Pitt (1967)

I first saw this film when I was a kid one Saturday afternoon under the title Five Million Years to Earth. At the time I was pretty enthralled with aliens after seeing Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Any movie with alien life forms in it was A-OK in my book and Five Million Years to Earth was no exception.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, The Vampire Lovers) , this Hammer Films outing stars Andrew Keir as Prof. Bernard Quatermass who is sent to investigate the unearthing of a “missile” during a subway construction in London. This missile proves to be an alien spacecraft which had crashed here on earth many moons ago. Once gaining entry into the spacecraft an inner wall is breached exposing the craft’s cargo, the fossilized remains of insect like alien beings!

Quatermass soon discovers that the alien beings are still able to communicate telepathically to the human mind. A pretty nifty device is used to transmit human thought into video projections, allowing Quatermass to see the alien beings on their own planet of Mars. These Martians committed genocide on their own planet and came here to earth with the intent on taking over. Telepathically they are able to awaken the inherent evil that resides in all human beings. Soon this inherent evil is realized and all hell literally breaks loose in the streets of London. Citizens are suddenly turned into hypnotized killers committing genocide on others. This evil “energy” comes to psychical fruition in the form of a ghostly specter looming over the area the spacecraft resides. Quatermass’ colleague, Dr. Roney (James Donald), sacrifices himself by steering a large metal crane into form. Discharging the energy and saving the human race. That last shot of the good Doc riding the crane into the face of pure evil and his own demise is quite the memorable payoff. One that left my jaw on the floor as a young kid…..and still does to this day!

Quatermass and the Pitt is based off the BBC Television production of the same name that ran in December 1958 through January 1959. It is largely faithful to the original production as well. What I like most of this film is the blending of Science Fiction and Horror elements. Insect like creatures from Mars that have a rather horned devil look to them combined with the psychic evil and a history of the supernatural events surrounding the area of “Hobb’s End” where the subway is being constructed, is fine story telling indeed. Roy Ward Baker’s direction is top notch and the performances from Kier, Donald, Barbara Shelley and Julian Glover are lively and believable. Unlike some of Hammer’s productions, Quatermass and the Pitt runs at a pretty good clip. Every minute of film time is devoted to pulling in the viewer and figuring out the mystery at hand. The film is genuinely spooky and holds up well considering its age and the somewhat hokey looking alien life forms seen in the telepathically captured footage sequence. That footage is probably my only beef with the film but is quickly swept aside by the acting, story telling and knock out punch ending.

Quatermass and the Pitt was preceded by two other films based on the BBC Television series, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; U.S. title The Creeping Unknown) and Quatermass 2 (1957; U.S. title The Enemy from Space) respectively. In 1979 a fourth Quatermass production was filmed for BBC Television simply titled Quatermass. In 2005 a live broadcast remake of The Quatermass Experiment was aired as well. Is there more for Professor Quatermass in our future? With the re emergence of Hammer Films Productions there most certainly could be the chance!

Monday, April 11, 2011

MegaForce (1982)

The year was 1982 and I was eleven years old. I was probably watching an episode of Star Blazers when I saw the T.V. spot for MegaForce. As an eleven year old boy who was into Star Wars and G.I. Joe, the trailer for MegaForce blew me away! What more could I have asked for? There were motorcycles with machine guns and rocket launchers, dune buggies with lasers and cool G.I. Joe looking characters kicking evil's butt! Sadly, I never made it to the theaters to see it. It seemed, however, that everywhere I looked there were posters and ads for this movie. I still remember playing the Atari 2600 game at a friends house and thinking it was the greatest thing ever.

Fast forward to 1989, I lived about a block down from a small strip mall that had a video rental store called Mr. Video (how I miss thee). I was always in there renting something and one day I decide to check out the action section. Low and behold there it is, MegaForce in all its VHS glory! I rented it and headed home to check it out. I cannot describe the complete shock I was in after viewing this. I just didn't expect it to be so bad!

MegaForce opens with a narrator telling us about MegaForce and how they are a "phantom Army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise", the movie then plunges us into a completely 80's hard driving rock music piece. I would not have blinked an eye if The Ultimate Warrior had emerged on the screen and taken on the "Macho Man" Randy Savage. Within the first fifteen minutes we get to see the famed MegaForce motorcycle team! They are basically dirt bikes with added plastic shielding but are equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers….YES! The riders are popping wheelies like 7th graders in a school parking lot and firing upon aerial targets with surprising accuracy. After this display of combatant excellence we are introduced to the leader of MegaForce, Ace Hunter. Hunter is played by Barry Bostwick (Spin City, Rocky Horror Picture Show) and looks like a G.I.Joe Barry Gibb.  He is immediately smitten by Zara (Persis Khambatta or Star Trek fame) who is accompanied by Gen. Edward Byrne-White (Edward Mulhare of T.V.s Knight Rider).

MageForce is asked to help the Republic of Sardun defend itself against the country of Gamibia. Gamibia is led by the ruthless Duke Guerrera, played by the great Henry Silva. MegaForce is to lure the forces of Gamibia into a trap and then stamp out Guerrera which will free the people of Sardun from the tyranny they have been subjected to.  The trap doesn’t go so well and MegaForce find themselves in Gamibian territory and about to be wiped out by Guerrera’s forces. The only way out is via an old dry lake in which Hunter and MegaForce rendezvous with their escape planes. An epic battle with all of the “most powerful  weapons science can devise" ensues. MegaForce makes it to the escape planes but Hunter is running a little late since he had to stop and tell Duke “the good guys always win……even in the 80’s!”  What happens next is PURE CINEMATIC GOLD!!

Ace Hunter jumps on his motorcycle and takes off across the dry lake to catch up with the escape plane which is already taxing down the desert. Duke is in hot pursuit with his plethora of tanks. Just when you think all is lost, Hunter’s motorcycle sprouts wings and flies! Yes ladies and gentlemen, the best is saved for last. This moment has to win the award for worst use of blue screen effects in a motion picture. It is the greatest payoff ever in the history of bad cinema and worth every ounce of time you might poor into finding this film for your own entertainment.  Needless to say Ace lands the bike in the planes cargo hold and everyone has a happy ending.

Recently I was able to catch this on the big screen at the Chesapeake Central Library during an installment of Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion. I tip my hat to Team Fantasmo for bringing this title back into my cinematic conciseness!