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DVD Reviews for 6/29: Time For Summer Camp!

by Peter Sobczynski

Miniskirted Venusians, shackled nymphomaniacs, philiosophical hit men, ecological disasters, mad slashers, killer ventriloquist dummies and Elvis Costello--this week has everything. Just don't eat the fish.

It is the middle of summer and you are simply looking for some mindless entertainment to veg out in front of for a couple of hours while trying to stay cool in the privacy of your own home. Unfortunately, the offerings on television are either reruns of shows that you have already watched, reruns that you made a point of not watching when they were first on or the latest Paris Hilton news–what is a self-respecting couch potato supposed to do, at least while the Cubs aren’t playing? Thankfully, Warner Home Video has come to the rescue with “Cult Camp Classics,” a quartet of box sets featuring some of the silliest and strangest titles in their possession. Cut-rate gladiators, airline disasters, troglodytes, punk kids, LSD hallucinations, seminal appearances by Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joan Collins–the 12 films featured in these four sets have just about everything that a fan of so-bad-its-good cinema could possibly want and if you are careful, you won’t learn a single thing from any of them.

“Cult Camp Classics 1–Sci-Fi Thrillers” is pretty much self-explanatory–it collects a trio of the weirdest science-fiction films ever made, including two of the genre’s most infamous titles. The set kicks off with 1958's “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman,” a hilarious distaff riff on “The Amazing Colossal Man” in which an emotionally distraught heiress (Allison Hayes) is zapped by an alien ray, grows to the title heights and uses her new-found powers to stomp on those who have wronged her–this would primarily be her two-timing louse of a husband (William Hudson) and his gold-digging mistress (the cheerfully slutty Yvette Vickers), both of whom get theirs in the deliriously daffy finale. Next up is 1959's “The Giant Behemoth,” a knock-off of “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” in which another prehistoric creature is revived due to atomic testing and shows his gratitude by going on a rampage–this one is enlivened by a finale featuring some impressive stop-motion animation work from “King Kong” creator Willis O’Brien. However, the highlight of the set is the immortal 1958 classic “Queen of Outer Space,” a wildly sexist and inadvertently hilarious tale (written by acclaimed sci-fi author Charles Beaumont and allegedly based on a story idea from Ben Hecht) in which a manly pace crew crash-land on Venus, discover that it is populated entirely by mini-skirted babes and help brilliant scientist Zsa Zsa Gabor lead a revolution against the ugly, man-hating queen (Laurie Mitchell). (In case some of this sounds familiar, it was the inspiration for the ersatz movie at the heart of the goofy comedy “Amazon Women On the Moon”).

“Cult Camp Classics 2–Women In Peril,” on the other hand, is a less cohesive collection because the titles on display are all over the map in terms of tone and quality. The 1950 drama “Caged” may sound like an over-the-top campfest simply because it is a women-in-prison movie–apparently the first one ever made–but while there are a few inadvertently goofy moments here and there as it follows semi-innocent Eleanor Parker as she finds herself in a prison run by fearsome matron Hope Emerson, it isn’t really that silly at all (the film was actually nominated for several Oscars) and anyone hoping for the lurid sexuality that this particular genre is famous for is going to come away from it mighty disappointed. 1969's “The Big Cube,” on the other hand, is somewhat closer to genuine camp as Lana Turner, heading towards the twilight of her career, plays a rich matron who is dosed with LSD by her hippie stepdaughter’s boyfriend (George Chakiris) in an attempt to bump her off for her inheritance–this is no better or worse than any other film that you have seen about murder plots and inheritances, though the LSD sequences do have an amusing kick to them. What saves this collection from utter disposability is the presence of the immortal 1970 schlock classic “Trog,” a film that no self-professed camp fanatic should be without. In what would be her last big-screen role, Joan Crawford plays an anthropologist who is called in when a creature is discovered who may be the famed Missing Link–she teaches it to play catch (“Get the ball! Good boy, Trog!”) and appreciate classical music and when it eventually breaks loose and grabs a little girl before hiding in a cave, she crawls around on all fours with some carrots while calling out “Here, Trog!” in a sequence that I guarantee that you will never forget, no matter how hard you may try.

“Cult Camp Classics 3–Terrorized Travelers” gets things back on track with a trio of hilariously hellish trips gone wrong. In 1967's “Hot Rods To Hell,” Dana Andrews plays a man driving his family to make a new start in California when he finds himself being harassed on the highways by a trio of Corvette-driving punks (including the always-delightful Mimsy Farmer)–not only does the abuse grow as the punks get some of their hot-rod buddies to join in, the evil leader seems to have his eye on Andrews’s sweet daughter. Everything about this bizarre generation gap drama/chase film is wildly overdone and, needless to see, pretty hysterical. “Skyjacked” (1972) takes us to the skies as a terrorist takes control of a Boeing 707, containing Mariette Hartley as a stewardess, James Brolin as an edgy Vietnam vet, Rosey Grier as a cellist, Walter Pidgeon as a senator and Susan Dey as a bit of fun, and demands that it be redirected to Anchorage, Alaska as part of a diabolical plan–alas, the hijacker didn’t count on the fact that Charlton Heston–Moses himself–would be at the controls of the plane to demonstrate the mad aviation skills that would allow him to save the day a couple of years later in “Airport 1975.” As amusing as these two films are, thought, both pale in comparison to the crackpot genius that is 1957's “Zero Hour.” In this airplane-based disaster film, food poisoning strikes the crew of a DC-4 and the only person who can possibly land the plane is Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews again), a traumatized former fighter pilot who insists that he can’t possibly handle the controls because of his war record. If this plot sounds more than a little familiar to you, it is because this is the film that Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker used as the basis for their 1980 comedy classic “Airplane!”–fans of that film will be amazed to see how many scenes (the pep talk, the slapping of the hysterical passenger and the little boy’s trip to the cockpit) and even exact lines of dialogue (“It’s an entirely different kind of flying altogether!”) were taken directly from this one and although it isn’t quite as funny as “Airplane!,” it comes pretty damn close.

“Cult Camp Classics 4–Historical Epics” is another fairly self-explanatory description of the titles contained within–a trio of goofball sword-and-sandal sagas chock-full of battle scenes, pretentious dialogue and big, beefy guys doing big, beefy things. First up is “The Colossus of Rhodes,” a 1961 drama in which Rory Calhoun plays a Greek military hero who becomes involved in a plot to overthrow the cruel King Serse–it fails but a last-minute earthquake winds up settling everyone’s scores in what was the directorial debut for legendary Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. By comparison, 1955's “The Prodigal” turns to the Bible (sort of) to tell the tale of Micah (Edmund Purdom), a young and headstrong Hebrew who decides to reject his father’s simple country life by moving to the big, bad city and falls into the seductive clutches of sexy pagan Lana Turner. Both of these films are pretty entertaining but the highlight of the set–indeed, the highlight of all of the “Cult Camp Classics” sets–is Howard Hawks’s “Land of the Pharaohs.” In this 1955 widescreen epic, co-written by none other than William Faulkner, the Pharaoh Khu-fu (Jack Hawkins) orders the construction of a robbery-proof pyramid that will allow him to take all of his treasures into the next life–alas, during the years it takes to build the pyramid, he takes as a second wife the seductive Princess Nellifer (a never-hotter Joan Collins), a sexy schemer with her own plans for the Pharaoh’s treasure. Although Hawks was pretty embarrassed by this film (when it flopped at the box-office, he took a four-year break from filmmaking that only ended with 1959's “Rio Bravo”) it has gained a sizeable cult over the years because it is just so shamelessly entertaining in the way that it throws every possible ingredient one could hope for into the mix–bald slaves with their tongues cut out, hungry alligators used to dispose of enemies, a cast of thousands, hundreds of camels, sexy dames, campy dialogue and, best of all, all of the characters wind up getting exactly what they deserve in one of the greatest and most perversely satisfying finales ever put on film.

Although not overflowing with extras, some of the titles in these sets have a couple on nice bonus features. On Volume 1, historian Tom Weaver joins Yvette Vickers on “50-Foot Woman” and Laurie Mitchell on “Queen of Outer Space” (the latter even features the two reading unfilmed scenes from the original screenplay) while special-effects wizards Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett offer their admiration for the stop-motion effects in “The Giant Behemoth” while mocking virtually every other aspect of the film. Volume 4 contains some slightly more serious-minded commentary tracks as well–“The Colossus of Rhodes” features Sergio Leone scholar Christopher Frayling, film historian Drew Caspar discusses “The Prodigal” and “Land of the Pharaohs” features filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and some of his archival interviews with Howard Hawks himself. While the other films lack any commentary tracks, all but “Skyjacked” do include their original theatrical trailers which are, often as not, just as entertaining as the films they are supposed to be pushing.

A Warner Home Video release. $29.95 each


AUTUMN (Passion Bridge. $29.95): Watching the glacially paced opening scenes of this French import, I became convinced that it was supposed to be a deadpan parody of Jean-Pierre Melville, the French filmmaker whose works included such seminal crime films as “Les Doulos,” “Le Samourai” and “Le Circle Rouge.” After all, it contains many of the elements that Melville was fond of deploying–honor among thieves, friendship, loyalty, betrayal and tight-lipped and emotionally void criminals going about their work with a singular lack of passion–but utilizes them in the service of a ridiculous story about a hired killer (Laurent Lucas) whose life begins to collapse when he inexplicably lets a target go free, angering his philosophical boss, and only gets worse when his girlfriend (Irene Jacob, a long way from Kieslowski’s “Red” or even “U.S. Marshals”), who appears to be a middleman for a bomb-making operation, steals a suitcase that certain people will kill to retrieve. Alas, we are supposed to take this misfire all too seriously, although some of the weak action sequences may inspired more that a few giggles.

BEHIND THE MASK–THE RISE OF LESLIE JORDAN (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98): If Christopher Guest ever decided to make a slasher movie, it might wind up looking like this sly mockumentary that follows an up-and-coming psycho killer as he prepares for a slaughter spree that will put him in the same ranks as Michael, Freddy and Jason. Although it begins to run out of steam towards the end, this is still a better-than-average horror-comedy hybrid that should help answer all those nagging questions about why cars in genre films never start when then need to and why a slow-walking killer can always seem to outpace a fleeing co-ed.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): In what may be the most cheerfully lurid fusion of arthouse and grindhouse since the glory days of the late, great Sam Fuller, writer-director Craig Brewer followed up his surprise hit “Hustle & Flow” with this southern-fried battle of the wills between a grizzled blues musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who is trying to get right with God and a half-naked nymphomaniac (Christina Ricci) whose wicked ways he takes it upon himself to cure by chaining her to the radiator in his isolated shack. It may sound like deranged trash but Brewer somehow finds the right tone early on and maintains it throughout and also gets strong and fearless performances from his leads.

DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (Homevision. $26.99): No, this isn’t a harrowing documentary tracking the people waiting to catch the first show of “Saw 3.” Instead, it is an even more harrowing documentary on how the mysterious arrival of a foreign fish–the Nile Perch–into Tanzania’s Lake Victoria several decades ago single-handedly kicked off a social, economic and ecological disaster that continues unabated to this day.

DEAD SILENCE (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although this ridiculous horror film about a man seemingly stalked by a killer ventriloquist’s dummy is arguably one of the dumbest things that I have ever seen, there is a strange part of me that wants to check out the DVD in order to see the “alternate ending” that has been included among the bonus features–considering the fact that the ending seen in theaters was so dumb that it made the climax of “The Village” look clever by comparison, I am curious to see just how bad this presumably lesser climax could possibly be.

DRIVE-IN DOUBLE-FEATURE (Dark Sky Films. $14.98): This week’s parade of campy craptaculars continues with this revenge-heavy double-bill set from the good folks at Dark Sky. The first, “Search and Destroy” (1979), stars Perry King as a Vietnam vet framed for murder when members of his old unit start turning up dead–it turns out that they have been picked off by a North Vietnamese soldier that they tortured and left for dead who has come back for revenge. The second, “The Glove” (1979), B-movie stalwart John Saxon plays a bounty hunter out to find Rosey Grier, an ex-con who is running around killing prison guards with the same steel glove they used on him in the slammer.

ELVIS COSTELLO LIVE–A CASE FOR SONG (Rhino/Wea. $14.98): The great singer-songwriter rips through a small portion of his prodigious catalogue with the assistance of the Attractions, the Brodsky Quartet and the White City Septet. Among the classic tunes featured here are “Pump It Up,” “Veronica,” “Shipbuilding” and “Complicated Shadows.”

FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD/FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (Tokyo Shock. $19.95): In this low-key 1965 art film from Japan, the heart of Frankenstein’s Monster, which has somehow made it to Japan, is irradiated by the Hiroshima blast and eventually transforms into a 100-ft-tall monster of some sort–luckily, this happens just in time for him to battle mid-level Toho creature Baragon in a fight that destroys literally tens of dollars of miniatures. Even by the normally bizarre levels of mid-1960's Japanese monster movies, I assure you that this one is a doozy.

GOING UNDER (Blue Underground. $29.95): The once-simple relationship dominatrix (Geno Lechner) and her wealthy client (Roger Rees) takes a series of strange turns when they decide to see each outside of the confines of their friendly local dungeon. Do things works out for them or does it all turn into a morass of psycho-sexual torture and unpleasantness for all concerned? Beats me.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL–THE CONCERT (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99): In what is presumably their last chance to squeeze a few bucks out of the surprisingly lucrative “High School Musical” juggernaut before the sequel appears next month, the good folks at Disney offers us a concert version featuring nearly all of the original cast (Zac Efron was too busy filming “Hairspray” to appear but the guy who actually did his character’s singing fills in) that was filmed in Houston before a crowd of adoring tweeners and, no doubt, more than a few creepy older guys paying closer attention to the rising hemlines on Ashley Tisdale’s outfits than on the songs.

LA JETEE/SANS SOLIEL (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Those of you with a fondness for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 time-travel mind-bender “12 Monkeys” will want to check out this latest winner from Criterion to see “La Jetee,” the haunting 1962 short film (told entirely through still images and narration) from filmmaker Chris Marker that inspired it. Also on the program is “Sans Soliel,” Marker’s jaw-dropping 1983 work that starts off as a documentary in which he visits and comments upon such far-flung locales as Japan, Iceland and South America and then turns into something far more mysterious, beautiful and inexplicable.

THE LAST HUNTER (Dark Sky Films. $14.98): In this super-violent bit of Italian-made genre trash from 1980, David Warbeck (who would go on to star in the immortal Lucio Fulci film “The Beyond”) stars as a burned-out soldier in Vietnam who leads a rag-tag gang of misfits and a sexy photographer behind enemy lines to destroy a Viet Cong radio tower–hopefully they are a little more polite towards the enemy than Perry King and his buddies were. Directed by Antonio Margheriti, the man behinds such classics as “Naked You Die!,” “Cannibal Apocalypse” and the simply indescribable “Yor, The Hunter From The Future.”

MIAMI VICE: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98): Unless you are a hard-core fan and need a complete set of every episode to rewatch to your heart’s content, you can pretty much skip this generally dismal final season of the once-revolutionary television series. If you are one of those hard-core fans, you will find musical cues from the likes of U2 and Guns N’ Roses and appearances from the likes of Brion James, Tony Sirico, Amanda Plummer, Rita Moreno, Michael Chiklis, John Leguizamo, Laura San Giacomo and the always-welcome Pam Grier.

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME 11 (Rhino Home Video. $59.95): Four more episodes from the single greatest television show ever produced. This time around, the gang cracks wise upon “Ring of Terror” (a barely-lit snoozefest in which the oldest college students in history pull a series of fraternity initiation pranks that eventually turn as deadly as the film), “The Indestructible Man” (in which Lon Chaney Jr. plays a thug who is two-timed by his partners, sentenced to death and then scientifically revived with a thirst for revenge and, to judge from the looks of it, fortified wine), “Tormented” (in which a hip dude who is about to marry into high society is haunted by the ghost of the mistress that he kinda, sorta helped to die) and “Horrors of Spider Island” (in which a group of strippers crash-land on a desert island and loll around in various states of undress before eventually being attacked by shabby creations meant to vaguely suggest giant spiders). Also included in the set are trailers, an interview with “Tormented” director Bert I. Gordon, the wrap-around footage shot for the syndicated “Mystery Science Theater Hour” in which Mike Nelson offers his odd interpretation of Jack Perkins and a montage of musical moments from the show, including the immortal holiday classic “Patrick Swayze Christmas”–the first Christmas carol to feature action sequences.

PRIDE (Lionsgate. $29.98): Another rehash of the standard inspirational sports melodrama template–this time around, the era is the 1970's, the sport is swimming and Terrence Howard gets the role of the coach who whips a group of rag-tag ghetto kids into a crack swim team just in time for the big meet that will change their lives forever.

SHOOTER (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Imagine a feature-length version of a Lyndon LaRouche pamphlet, minus the cohesive plot, and you have this preposterous thriller in which Mark Wahlberg squanders his post-“The Departed” credibility as a highly skilled marksman/conspiracy theorist who nevertheless allows himself to get sucked into being the patsy in a plot that even your sweet and trusting grandmother would have seen through in an instant.

THE SPAGHETTI WEST (IFC Films. $26.95): This reasonably informative documentary, originally produced for the IFC cable network, chronicles the rise and fall of the strange subgenre of Italian-made westerns that became a worldwide sensation thanks to such seminal works as “Django,” “Sabata” and Sergio Leone’s classic “Man With No Name” trilogy. Be warned–if you watch this film, you will no doubt be compelled to spending the next few weeks trying to track down as many of the titles featured as you can find.

STANDING STILL (The Weinstein Company. $19.99): No, that indescribably awful Jami Gertz sitcom hasn’t finally made its way to DVD–at least not yet. Instead, this is some long-on-the-shelf fodder that the Weinsteins are finally dumping on video in which a bunch of hip young things (including Amy Adams, James Van Der Beek, Mena Suvari, Ethan Embry and Lauren German) play a bunch of college pals who reunite for a wedding and no doubt come to terms with some damn thing or another.

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originally posted: 06/29/07 23:27:29
last updated: 06/30/07 04:54:09
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