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DVD Reviews for 11/21: Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/21/08 15:23:52

In which your faithful critic tries to explain, none too successfully, why he has dedicated valuable time and space to a barely-remembered piece of exploitation trash featuring a battle royale between Moe Green and some water moccasins.

As even a cursory glance at the list of this week’s new DVD releases will reveal, there are any number of intriguing titles that I could have focused on for the main review. I could have tackled the double-header of “Bloody Moon” and “Devil Hunter” to explore the always-twisted cinematic excesses of cult filmmaker Jess Franco, for example, or gone all auteurist by discussing the box sets devoted to the works of Derek Jarman or D.W. Griffith. I could have used Criterion’s solo releases of “A Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “A Woman Under the Influence” to finally admit once and for all that while I like the idea of a guy like John Cassavetes who would literally put everything he had into his work, it doesn’t change the fact that I have never been able to really warm up to the films themselves. The numerous TV box sets available this week could have provided plenty of material--the “Star Trek Season 3” and “The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Collector’s Edition Megaset” would have allowed me to indulge in my inner nerd while “Charmed: The Complete Series” would have let me ramble on at length about my powerful and long-running crushes on both Shannen Doherty and Rose McGowan. Hell, I might have even broken my rule about never featuring a film that I already reviewed at length during its theatrical release in order to once again spread the word on Werner Herzog’s masterpiece “Encounters at the End of the World.” With such a bounty of titles to choose from, many of you may be wondering why it is that I have chosen to ignore all of those titles in order to scribble a few words about “Stanley: Special Edition,” the DVD premiere of a cheapjack exploitation film from 1973 that most people, even those with a taste for this particular area of filmmaking, have either heard of or remember at all. Well, I assure you--there is a very good reason why I am doing that and I promise that it will be revealed in a couple of paragraphs.

The film stars Chris Robinson as Tim, a shell-shocked soldier who has just returned from Vietnam to his home deep in the Everglades. Upon returning, he discovers that his father has passed away and as a result, the closest thing that he now has to actual friends are the snakes that he raises, chiefly a large rattler that he names Stanley. Alas, some people are unwilling to leave well enough alone and before long, Tim is being harassed by Thomkins (Alex Rocco, who did this film at roughly the same time that he appeared in a little thing called “The Godfather“), the town big shot who runs a profitable business of catching as many snakes as he can and transforming them into wallets, boots and other sundry items. When Tim won’t sell his snakes to him, he responds by having his henchmen (including Steve Alaimo, the singing star of the biker classic “Wild Rebels”) kill the baby rattlers that Stanley has just fathered. That alone would be enough to make Tim mean mad but when he discovers that was also responsible for the death of his father, it sends him completely over the edge and he begins to use his power over the snakes so that they can help him kill off all of his oppressors (which also include a local stripper who inexplicably ends her act by chomping the head off of a live snake) one by one in various snake-related ways.

At this point, some of you more attentive readers may be asking yourselves “Hey, isn’t this pretty much the same thing as “Willard,” only with snakes instead of rats?” Well no, it isn’t pretty much the same thing as “Willard”--it is exactly the same thing as “Willard,” a fact that director William Grefe (the auteur of such weirdo B movies as “Death Curse of Tartu” and the ultra-bizarre William Shatner psycho-killer extravaganza “Impulse” cops to right at the start of his commentary track). Frankly, it isn’t even a very good “Willard” knockoff because unlike a rat, which can at least scurry around underfoot and look like it has the vague glimmerings of a personality, a snake simply isn’t a very good vehicle for an elaborate revenge plot because if they are to be effective at all, their victims pretty much have to fall right on top of them to get them to strike. Sure, the film contrives numerous ways to entrap its victims--a couple are chased through the woods and land in quicksand--but after a while, Grefe gets so lazy that he just has Tim sneak into someone’s bedroom and dump a sack of snakes on them. Beyond the failure of its central premise, the film also contains many of the hallmarks of the cheesy exploitation films of the era that have not been reclaimed as kitsch masterpieces--it moves at a snail’s pace, the technical aspects are shoddy beyond belief and the performances from the largely unknown cast are uniformly awful in that they are too silly to work as real dramatics and too dull to work as camp.

And now, I suppose I should get to the aforementioned reason for spending your time and money on checking this particular film out, especially since I have just spent the last paragraph or two slagging it mercilessly. You see, when you have seen as many crappy exploitation movies over the years, you find yourself being a little more forgiving towards them as long as they are able to muster up at least one interesting element that is worth savoring--a oddball bit of dialogue, a spectacularly cheesy special effect or a gruesomely efficient death scene. The tongue-ripping from “Blood Feast” or the fur-covered Volkswagen meant to represent “The Giant Spider Invasion” are two such elements that come to mind--the surrounding movies may be utter crap but those bits are so arresting that in both cases, it is worth sitting through all the other garbage just to experience them. Amazingly, “Stanley” happens to have one of those moments as well and it comes during the death of chief baddie Thomkins. Earlier in the film, it has been established that he fancies himself a fitness buff who makes sure to begin each day with a swim in his backyard pool. When Tim goes on his rampage of revenge, he is inspired to sneak onto Thomkins’ property and dump a bunch of snakes into the pool in the hopes that by the time the guy realizes they are there, it will be too late. Sure enough, Alex Rocco comes out (adorned in an incredibly ugly bathing suit), steps up on his diving board and. . .well, if you want to know what happens next (and believe me, you do) you will have to find out for yourselves.

When you are done regaling in the particular glories of that scene (and trust me, you won’t be able to resist watching it over and over again), you can then tuck into the surprisingly hefty number of bonus features on display. First up is “Dark Side of Eden--The Making of Stanley,” a newly produced retrospective documentary on the making of the film that features new interviews with Grefe, screenwriter Gary Crutcher and co-stars Robinson and Alaimo and includes behind-the-scenes footage shot during the production as well as numerous stills. Then there is “Stanley: Revisitied,” a featurette in which Grefe takes us on a tour of the various locales in the Everglades where he shot the film. “Stanley Goes Hollywood” contains footage of a Q&A that was held after a recent screening of the film at the New Beverly Cinema. Finally, there are two different audio commentaries, one featuring Grefe and the other featuring Crutcher that offer up more details about the film’s production that you could possibly imagine. Of the nuggets of information offered up, my favorite has to be Grefe’s admission of what became of the snake that played Stanley. . .again, if you want to know what happened, you will have to find out for yourselves.

Written by Gary Crutcher. Directed by William Grefe. Starring Chris Robinson, Alex Rocco, Susan Carroll, Mark Harris and Steve Alaimo as “Crail.” 1973. 106 minutes. Rated PG. A BCI release. $19.98

NEW AND NOTABLE

BLOODY MOON/DEVIL HUNTER (Severin Films. $29.98 each): Fans of cult filmmaker Jess Franco will be delighted with these two selections from his decidedly twisted oeuvre. The former is his 1981 take on the then-popular slasher movie subgenre and finds the delectable Olivia Pascal (the star of the Eurosleaze classic “Vanessa”) being pursued by a mysterious killer in a film featuring slaughter sequences utilizing a power saw and, even more terrifying, some roller disco sequences. The latter is a gruesome 1980 item in the vein (and artery) of “Cannibal Holocaust” in which a group of dim bulb anthropologists go into the jungle to research a mysterious tribe and don’t come out.

THE CLIQUE (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Based on a series of books aimed squarely at the tween market that is too old for “Bratz” and too young for the glories of “Gossip Girl,” this direct-to-DVD effort tells the shocking and surprising tale of a girl who arrives at a new high school and runs afoul of the bitchy group of girls who run the entire social scene. You know, this actually reminds me of some film that I saw a few years ago. . .damn, the name of it is right on the tip of my tongue. Maybe I’ll think of it by the end of the column.

THE DEREK JARMAN COLLECTION (Kino Video. $79.95): Following on the heels of the acclaimed “Glitterbox” set, this collection brings together three noteworthy works from the late British director--his 1976 debut “Sebastiane” (a meditation on the martyrdom of St Sebastian), 1979’s “The Tempest” (his bizarre take on Shakespeare’s final play) and 1989’s “War Requiem” (a film version of the famous 1961 orchestral work by Benjamin Britten that features one of the first screen performances from Jarman muse Tilda Swinton and the last screen appearance from Sir Lawrence Olivier--along with a 2008 documentary hosted by Swinton, three of Jarman’s early short films and a 70-minute interview with the man.

THE D.W. GRIFFITH MASTERWORKS, VOLUME 2 (Kino Video. $89.95): Although this five-disc collection of films from the cinema’s first great narrative filmmaker lacks such well-known titles as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance” or “Orphans of the Storm” (all of which appeared in Volume 1), the titles collected here are pretty interesting in their own right. Generally regarded as one of his finest works, 1920’s “Way Down East” is a sumptuous melodrama in which unwed mother Lillian Gish tries to make a new life for herself in a small farming town until her sordid past catches up with her. “The Avenging Conscience” (1914) is a Poe-influenced oddity in which a nice young man murders his vile and overbearing uncle and finds himself crippled with guilt as a result. 1925’s “Sally of the Sawdust” was a decided change of pace--an adaptation of the W.C. Fields stage show “Poppy” (which Fields would remake a decade later as a talkie under its original title)in which Fields plays a con man saddled with the guardianship of an adorable little girl. Griffith’s only two sound features--1930’s “Abraham Lincoln” (featuring Walter Huston in the title role) and 1931’s “The Struggle” (a harrowing look at the ravages of alcoholism)--are teamed up together on a disc and the package is completed with “D.W. Griffith: Father of Film,” a three-part 1993 documentary on the man and his work made by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gil.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Image Entertainment. $27.98): In one of the most awe-inspiring films of a career that has been filled with such things, the great Werner Herzog travels to a remote research facility in the Antarctic to meet the group of eccentrics who populate the place in order to get an idea of what makes them tick. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that and while I wouldn’t dream of revealing what occurs, I will mention that the film contains some of the most extraordinary images that I have ever seen in a film of any kind. This recently made the shortlist for the Best Documentary Oscar and if there is any justice at all, Herzog will find himself up on stage in a few months collecting a richly deserved award for a truly stunning piece of filmmaking.

GARDEN PARTY (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98): This is another one of those movies in which the lives of a group of seemingly disparate and desperate denizens of Los Angeles find their lives colliding into each other in strange and unexpected ways. This one co-stars Vinessa Shaw, so it goes without saying that hack gossip blogger Jeffrey Wells will get a kick out of it.

GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Arguably the best of the string of documentaries about the crazy life and times of the infamous journalist that have cropped up in the wake of his 2005 suicide, Alex Gibney’s take on the man and the myth doesn’t really offer up any new thoughts or insights but makes up for it with a treasure trove of archival material featuring Thompson at work and play. For fans of the good doctor, the film is a must while providing a strong enough overview to help newcomers understand what all the fuss was about.

HANNAH MONTANA: SEASON ONE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $39.99): If you have a young girl that is within the target audience for this freakishly popular Disney Channel series, you presumably don’t need me to explain this particular selection in any detail as you probably have every single episode tattooed into your brain. Of course, if you have a young girl that is within the target audience, you have no doubt already purchased this set, either for viewing now or as a future Christmas present.


If you are in further need of Disney-related fun and games, this week also sees the release of “Hannah Montana DVD Game” and “High School Musical DVD Game” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99 each), a pair of DVD games that will allow your young ones to sing and dance alongside their on-screen favorites while indulging in a series of games and puzzles.

IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH (Severin Films. $29.98): You know, I am a huge fan of Italian giallo thrillers, the more confusing and lurid the better, but this 1970 example of the form is so confusing and lurid that I couldn’t begin to give you even the vaguest plot description. Instead, I will merely point out that it features a number of beautiful Italian starlets, an over-the-hill name performer in Pier Angeli (in one of her last films before her 1971 suicide) and a number of gruesomely over-the-top murder sequences and eyebrow-raising imagery. In other words, if you have a taste for this particular style of filmmaking, you should check this out pronto.

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE/A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95 each): Having released an acclaimed box set dedicated to the works of the late indie maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes a few years ago, Criterion has finally begun to sell the titles on an individual basis. The former, a 1976 effort in which Ben Gazzara plays a down-on-his-luck strip-club owner who runs afoul of gangsters who force him to commit the titular act in order to save his business and his life, comes with two different versions of the film (Cassavetes’ original 135-minute cut and a 108-minute version that he prepared two years later for an abortive re-release), a video interview with Gazzara and an archival audio interview with Cassavetes conducted at the time of the original release by critics Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson.

MITZI GAYNOR: RAZZLE DAZZLE--THE SPECIAL YEARS (City Lights Home Entertainment. $24.98): Between 1968 and 1978, the acclaimed singer-dancer (best known at the time for playing Nellie Forbush in the film version of “South Pacific”) did a series of annual variety specials filled with glitzy musical numbers and glitzier outfits courtesy of designer Bob Mackie. This documentary takes a look back at those specials and features numerous clips as well as commentary from the likes of Gaynor and Mackie as well as fans like Kristin Chenoweth. Other music-related DVDs appearing this week include “Genesis Box Set 3, 1970-1975: (Rhino Records. $139.98), “The Who at Kilburn: 1977" (Image Entertainment. $24.98) and “Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan” (Paramount Home Video. $22.98).











PRICELESS (First Look Films. $28.98): After leaving her rich sugar daddy for a night of passion with a seemingly richer man while on vacation, a gold-digger (Audrey Tautou) discovers to her horror that the guy is actually a penniless waiter at the hotel. She then decides to use the charm that bamboozled her for financial gain by training him in the fine art of gold-digging as well while trying to cover up her true feelings for him. This is, as you can probably guess, total fluff from start to finish but it manages to work thanks to the mega-charming presence of Tautou, who essentially carries the entire thing on her slim shoulders.

SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELLING PANTS 2 (Warner Home Video. $28.98): Like the original, this sequel to the 2005 tween-girl hit about the trials and tribulations of four lifelong friends (America Ferrara, Blake Lively, Amber Tamblyn and Alexis Bledel and yes, it is easy to tell which ones went through the filming ruing that sequel clause from their original contracts) whose bond is cemented by a magical pair of jeans was better than it had to be but not good enough to recommend to anyone outside of its target audience. Far more intriguing than the film itself is a bonus feature described as “Go Jump Off A Cliff: How the Exhilarating Final Sequence-Not Originally in the Script-Was Inspired by Fan Reaction to the First Movie.” You know, I dreamed up any number of scenes in my head after seeing the first movie but alas, the one seen here had nothing to do with them.

STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES--SEASON 3 REMASTERED (CBS DVD. $84.98): The third and final season of the immortal sci-fi series was by far the weakest of the bunch--it kicked off with the single stupidest episode of the entire series (the jaw-dropping “Spock’s Brain”) and never really improved thanks to a combination of slashed budgets, network interference and fairly lame scripts. Perhaps realizing this weakness, the producers have loaded this re-release (complete with newly designed visual effects that have been digitally inserted into the old material) with plenty of bonus materials--in addition to the return of a number of featurettes from the previous edition (including an overview of the season as a whole, pieces on supporting players George Takei, Walter Koenig and James Doohan and a look at the collectible market that the show inspired) as such new items as a featurette on recently deceased co-producer Bob Justman, a look at some behind-the-scenes home movies shot by stand-in Billy Blackburn and two versions of “The Cage,” the never-aired original pilot for the show. Other TV shows hitting DVD this week include “Bones--Season 3” (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98), “Burke’s Law: Season One, Volume 2” (VCI Entertainment. $29.99), “Charmed: The Complete Series” (CBS DVD. $249.98), “The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus--Collector’s Edition Megaset” (A&E Home Video. $159.95), “Hawaii Five-O: The Fifth Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99) and “The Odd Couple--The Final Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98)




TROPIC THUNDER (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $34.99): Remember the joke in this wickedly inspired Hollywood satire in which Robert Downey Jr’s character, an Australian method actor so devoted to his craft that he dyes his skin in order to play an African-American, claims that he stays in character from the first day of shooting until he records the DVD commentary? Apparently he wasn’t kidding--not only does he appear on one of the film’s two commentary tracks along with co-stars Ben Stiller and Jack Black (just one of the numerous bonus features on this 2-disc set), he actually does it in character all the way through.

WALL*E (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $39.99): With their latest effort, the good folks at Pixar have once again challenged themselves and their audiences by offering up a largely dialogue-free epic that spends most of its first half on a future Earth that has become so choked with garbage that the entire planet has been rendered uninhabitable and focuses on a solitary robot trying to win the heart of the artificial life form of its dreams. On the surface, such a premise may sound like a barely palatable fusion of “I Am Legend” and “Heartbeeps,” but in the hands of Pixar, they have transformed this potentially mawkish tale into a film that is not only a great entertainment for viewers of all ages and temperaments, it may even top “Ratatouille” as their supreme artistic achievement. In other words, it is just as good as you have heard.

ZOMBIE DIARIES (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): In what looks and sounds like a low-budget rip-off of both George Romero’s brilliant film “Diary of the Dead” and Max Brooks’ acclaimed novel “World War Z,” the world-wide outbreak of zombies rising from the grave to eat human flesh is chronicled through the footage shot from a number of survivors as it actually happens. While this British-made horror film is a little better than your standard direct-to-video zombie fest, there isn’t anything here that you haven’t seen done better elsewhere.

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