DVDs have been around long enough that releases pandering to more obscure tastes are now a given. (If you remember, it took CDs a while to delve into the farther reaches of "good" taste; now we hardly blink when confronted with a 19-hour G.I. Gurdjieff box set.) I no longer have any doubt that I will someday hold in my hands DVD reissues of WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dellamorte Dellamore, Elevator to the Gallows and the works of Kenneth Anger. There are a few films recently (and not so recently) surfaced on DVD that warrant mention, both for their outstanding quality as films, and for the celebratory fact that someone had the cojones to put these titles out.
The Ultimate Camper-Slasher Film
Forget Friday the 13th. Forget the whole series. Jason Voorhees (one of the dullest characters in the horror genre) has nothing on a couple of inbred Virginian twins. Whatever camp appeal the loosely strung together kill scenes of the Friday series may provide, Just Before Dawn (1980) is guaranteed to thrill on a more sophisticated and cathartic level. A worthy descendant of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Just Before Dawn has a subtlety and lingering creepiness not seen too often in this genre, i.e., what you don't see, or what you see quickly out of the corner of your eye, is ultimately more unsettling than any graphic gore that could have been provided. Shriek Show's reissue packs a full 2nd disc of cast and crew interviews, trailers and stills galore. Click here for my full review posted on the IMDb.
I’m a whore for the early days of experimental film, especially of the 50s and 60s. The thoughtfully-assembled, gloriously remastered Stan Brakhage double-DVD on Criterion (rel. summer 2003) was therefore a must-have. Brakhage’s goal was to liberate the eye from learned perceptions, i.e., "How many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'green'?” Nowhere is this notion more manifest than in Dog Star Man, presented on disc 1 of the set. In addition to the images filmed, the actual negative was painted on, scratched and distressed any number of ways. The result is a fast moving (but not un-soothing) cavalcade of color imagery and superimposition. That said, the sheer beauty of Dog Star Man, and many of the other films in this collection, will likely keep the uninitiated from feeling bored or over-articized; inasmuch as these are unquestionably experimental works, lacking plot or narrative, they are nonetheless accessible to anyone with a relatively open mind and a set of working eyes. (Note: Some films in the set are not for the faint-hearted, including unblinking autopsy footage and a live birth; these are not, however, typical of what’s presented.)
Never Take an RV Trip Again
The most xenophobic film ever shot in the American Southwest, Race With The Devil was a long-awaited reissue for me, and (unlike a lot of films) it lived up to my fond, eerie memories of watching it as a kid. The story follows Peter Fonda, Warren Oates and Loretta Swit on the run from a "Satanic" cult which seemingly has omniscient membership across several states. Need I say more? The extras include illuminating, amusing commentary from Fonda and others involved in the film’s creation.
Andy Came Back
Bob Clark is the directorial genius that brought us two of the best (and most thematically disparate) Christmas movies of all time, A Christmas Story and Black Christmas. Both films, one a family comedy, one a haunting slasher film, are unique and genre-defining. For Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) (1974), Clark teamed up again with writer pal Alan Ormsby (2 years earlier they had brought to the screen the amateurish, though oddly effective Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, a hipster zombie film that those of a certain age may remember well, which is also poised for 2006 remake by the director himself.) Deathdream concerns the saga of Andy, a young soldier who returns home from Vietnam with a more-than-supernatural case of PTSD (let's just say that Andy's Mom prayed a little too hard.) Amidst occasional scenes of horror and gore, the real story is played out as a sad parable of anti-war sentiment, kind of a Monkey's-Paw thing, with subtle character performances and genuine pathos. After seeing several murky VHS prints over the years, Blue Underground's labor-of-love DVD release (June 2004) was like finding money. Truly one of my favorite films.
Little Werner Needs To Fly
Werner Herzog, along with Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, initiated what was known as the New German Cinema in the 1970s. Herzog is most well-known for his epic dramas, many of them starring the late Klaus Kinski (the madman Kinski would get the documentary treatment in 1999 via Herzog's My Best Fiend.) Throughout his career, though, Herzog has also been a meticulous documentarian, and in the last 15 years or so, this has been the director's main focus, albeit with barely a nod to the conventional style of documentary filmmaking. He instead prefers to contextualize (or perhaps de-contextualize) exquisite imagery with his own voice-over script, re-assembling the beauty and horror he photographs within a fantastical, absurd, hypnotic and sometimes satirical frame. Many of these films are available on DVD, thanks to the good people at Anchor Bay, who have made it their business to create the Werner Herzog Collection, which between box sets and individual discs, also includes nearly all of his feature films. Case in point, Lessons of Darkness (1992), where the director finds both human tragedy and unusual beauty amidst the ecological devastation of oil fires set by retreating Iraqi troops in post Gulf War Kuwait. As always, Herzog's eye gives equal time to the static majesty and constancy of nature and the curious movements of the humans who inhabit it; his lens is naive, curious, humble, but always visionary. For more information, see Werner Herzog's IMDb page.
Just Before Dawn director Jeff Lieberman also wrote and directed the low-budget LSD classic Blue Sunshine, as well as the less-than-classic Squirm.
Stan Brakhage made over 350 films.
Race with the Devil is being remade (ugh!) by Chris Moore of Project Greenlight fame, and is set for a 2006 release. (Is it just my imagination, or are 90% of new Hollywood films mediocre remakes of 70s classics?)
Bob Clark also directed the Porky’s series (1982-83), films that I thought were dumb at the time, but seem less dumb in light of today’s even dumber movies.
Alan Ormsby also wrote My Bodyguard.