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[Blu-ray Review] ‘Creepshow,’ ‘People Under The Stairs,’ ‘The Fury,’ ‘Snuff,’ ‘Embrace of the Vampire,’ and ‘Nothing Left to Fear’!

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Creepshow (Second Sight – Region 2)

Before Dick Tracy and Sin City thrilled audiences with its faithful recreation of the comic book aesthetic came Creepshow, a horror anthology in the tradition of EC Comics. This brainchild of horror icons Director George A. Romero and Writer Stephen King is a giddy tribute to the likes of Tales From the Crypt which ran from 1950-1955. These bloody morality plays had a profound influence on them while growing up. It is especially apparent in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead which features comic-style violence and social commentary that wouldn’t look out of place on the pages of EC.

Creepshow is a collection four short stories not including a wraparound tale revolving a strict father and his horror-loving son. This simple set-up is instantly relatable to many genre fans that grew up under similar circumstances (thankfully my parents were super-cool with this obsession of mine). It’s a smart way to draw us in from the get-go. I love how each story is compelling, uniquely different yet still follows the template that runs throughout EC Comics’ books. This includes a tongue-in-cheek, darkly comedic tone and an allegorical pay-off in which the characters usually get their come-upping’s. At the same time it never trickles too far into camp territory that would undermine the spook factor. This is achieved with the assistance of an outstanding ensemble with the likes of Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen and Ed Harris, most generally not known for doing genre. They give each segment the gravity required. The ground-breaking, hyper-stylized cinematography is another key component. It captures the look of the comics flawlessly. Special Make-up Effects god Tom Savini does some of his finest work here. The zombies and creatures are beautifully realized. Special acknowledgement needs to be made to John Harrison’s exceptional score. If you’ve somehow gone through life not seeing this classic, you’ll recognize the cues from Eli Roth’s brilliant Thanksgiving faux-trailer found in GrindhouseCreepshow. Its charm still hits that sweet spot to this day.

The video looks sourced from the same print WB used in the U.S. release which was very pleasing. Only difference here is a different encode. The VC-1 codec has been replaced with the superior MPEG-4 AVC. What you get now is none of the little compression seen on the U.S. disc. Images look that much more pleasing now. My only gripe is that Second Sight didn’t go over the print again and remove the consistent dirt from it. It’s nothing too distracting but would have surely taken this release to another level. On the audio department, we get a same sounding Stereo PCM which is true to the original release. In addition, we get a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix which contains the occasional crisp SFX in the rear channels. For the most part, it’s not too different from the stereo track. The most notable improvement is John Harrison’s iconic score which is benefited by this 5.1 expansion. It sounds better than ever. This track is the rare upgrade that I prefer over an original mix.

All of the special features from the 2007 UK-exclusive 2-Disc Special Edition has been carried over which includes a trailer, a TV spot, an extensive photo gallery, 15 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes, cool behind the scenes footage in “Tom Savini’s Behind the Screams” (26 mins), an engaging Romero/Savini commentary track and the terrific 90-minute doc, “Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow”. New to Second Sight’s Blu-ray edition; an informative commentary track with Director of Photography Michael Gornick, Actor John Amplas, Property Master Bruce Alan Miller and Make-up Assistant Daryl Ferrucci. Despite Stephen King not making an appearance in the interview portion, everything you’d ever want to know about the creation of this seminal horror anthology is covered in this set.

Creepshow still remains on the top of my list among horror anthologies. Like other greats such as Black Sabbath and Trick ‘r Treat, it benefits from being directed by one person. Quality is persistent throughout. While stylistically cohesive, each tale stands apart from the other. Even after countless amount of views, Creepshow’s fun factor never ceases to amaze me. Second Sight’s loaded Blu-ray gives fans everything they could ever possible would want in a home video release of this masterpiece. For North American’s, this is yet another reason why purchasing a Region-Free Blu-ray player is a must.

The People Under the Stairs (Arrow Video – Region 2)

Wes Craven’s career is not one of consistency. He’s got as many duds as he has successes. Still, he’s deserving of being placed among the greatest horror filmmakers that’s ever lived. When Craven is in form, he’s as sharp as they come. He has an uncanny knack, more than any other artist working within the genre, to tap into the viewer on a deep, all too personal level. He captured dreams so frighteningly vivid in his masterwork A Nightmare on Elm Street. This insured many sleepless nights. With 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, Craven returned to the top of his game, delivering one of his most original and exciting creations.

A street-smart boy known as Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) is from a poor black neighbourhood. He is convinced by his sister’s boyfriend (a pre-Pulp Fiction Ving Rhames) to join him and his buddy to rob their cruel landlords (who are referred to simple as Man and Woman) at their home. Out of desperation of his family’s crumbling situation, he agrees. Things take an unexpected turn though when the burglars find themselves trapped within the house. It’s filled with its fair share of disturbing, unreal secrets. The People Under the Stairs has an almost Alice in Wonderlandish vibe, only much darker. It’s not hard to see some resemblance between Fool and Alice, both naively wandering into uncharted territories. The Man and Woman’s house is a gritty, fantastical labyrinth filled with one hidden passage after another. There is a wonderful sense of discovery all throughout Fool’s journey.

The central character Fool is one of Craven’s finest creations. Despite the adversity facing him at such a young age, he somehow perseveres. He’s charismatically played by Adams. It’s not hard to root for him especially with antagonists as horrible as the ones he’s facing. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (both happen to have played a married couple in Twin Peaks right before) are flat-out brilliant as one of the cinema’s most unredeemable screen duo. They play it fearlessly big without turning the characters into parody. McGill and Robie’s satirization of upper class greed is pitch-perfect.

With subtext that’s sadly just as relevant now as it was back in 1991, The People Under the Stairs appears to have the power to stand the test of time. Considering I’m at an age now where I clearly understand what Craven has carefully injected into the picture, it resonates on another level. Not since John Carpenter’s They Live has a genre picture captured social inequality in such a genuinely honest manner. They both can be enjoyed as the exceptional works of entertainment that they are yet if you’re looking for something more, it offers just that. The People Under the Stairs also satirizes the dark underbelly within the family unit, a theme Craven explored before especially in The Hills Have Eyes. The film has grown to be one of my favourites from Craven’s filmography. He’s at his confident, imaginative best. The master pulls the tricky tone with ease. It’s aged well and jam-packed with delights for genre fans of all sorts.

Universal has provided Arrow with HD digital transfer and the film has never looked better. Print is in fine shape, colors, contrast and detail are strong throughout. We get the original uncompressed mix in PCM 2.0 and its one of the most impressive stereo mixes I’ve heard all year. It never sounds cluttered. There’s a really great separation with SFX and score plus the bass channel packs a good punch.

As for supplements, you get the theatrical trailer, Arrow’s standard reversible sleeves which feature the original poster and new artwork by Stephen R. Bissette. The collector’s booklet contains an insightful new piece by Brian J. Robb, author of “Screams & Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven” (a great read) and some archival stills. The highlights of this Blu-ray are the featurettes. The best of the lot is “Fear, Freud and Class Warfare: Director Wes Craven Discusses the Timely Terrors of The People Under the Stairs” (25 mins) in which Craven goes into detail about the genesis of the project and the themes he explores. “Behind Closed Doors: Leading Lady A.J. Langer Remembers The People Under the Stairs” (14 mins), “Silent But Deadly: Co-Star Sean Whalen on The People Under the Stairs” (14 mins) and “Underneath the Floorboards: Jeffrey Reddick, creator of The Final Destination series, recalls the lasting impact of The People Under the Stairs” (9 mins) are also engaging pieces. The only disappointment in the set is a lacklustre commentary track with star Brandon Quentin Adams (who plays Fool), moderated by Calum Waddell. Adams doesn’t contribute a whole lot which leaves Waddell (who dominates like 90% of the conversation) giving his views on the subtext of the film, as well as doing his absolute best to get any kind tidbit out of Adams. It’s devoid of any real substantial information. Fortunately the featurettes and booklet more than make up for this.

It’s great to see that The People Under the Stairs still holds relevance after all these years. The social commentary is just as vital as ever. Strip that all away and the film is still a damn slice of superior entertainment. The People Under the Stairs may be Craven at his most unfettered. The film goes for it with balls to the wall and delivers an experience quite like no other. Here’s hoping this smashing Blu-ray release not only gets fans to rediscover it but as well as introduce this underappreciated gem a new generation of fans. It’s worthy of being put alongside Craven’s classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.

The Fury (Arrow Video – Region 2)

In all honesty, I am as diehard fan of Director Brian De Palma. I can find something redeemable in every one of his pictures including the much despised Raising Cain (which I unabashedly adore). He’s gone back and forth from personal projects (Phantom of the Paradise and Blow Out) to studio gigs (Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables). The Fury is largely looked down upon as De Palma in “hired gun” mode. Personally, I can’t think of a single studio picture he made that didn’t have his personal stamp all over it. Whether you appreciate his body of work or not, there’s no denying that the man isn’t shooting for the stars at his every at bat. 1978’s The Fury personifies this gung-ho approach as well as any other film in his catalogue.

The Fury is about Peter Sandza, a determined ex-CIA agent (Kirk Douglas) and his high stakes quest to rescue his psychic-ability stricken son from a sinister secret government agency. He enlists the help of another psychic Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) in order to track him down. It has shades of Carrie and Scanners in it yet on a much larger scale. There is a heck of a lot going on in The Fury. It has bits and pieces seen in other films. The film defies genre like no other before and since. Its supernatural horror, adventure, melodrama, conspiracy thriller and comedy all rolled up into one. De Palma’s grandiose brand of filmmaking compliments John Farris’ outlandish screenplay perfectly. There is no other filmmaker that could make this type of material work to such riveting effect. Sure, The Fury is a convoluted mess. Somehow this doesn’t retract from the enjoyment of the picture in any way since there isn’t a single moment where the film settles down and lets you ponder that conclusion. The Fury moves at a locomotive pace from start to finish. De Palma keeps you mesmerized one spectacularly conceived set-piece after another. There is zero repetition. De Palma is a kid in a candy story, consistently keeping things visually exciting at every turn. He’s assisted by his game cast. Douglas and his larger than life persona fits The Fury’s ever-shifting tone. He’s the picture’s anchor. Carrie’s Irving conveys the character’s vulnerability with total conviction which makes the finale that much more harrowing. John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby) steals the show as one of my all-time favourite villains, the cool and understatedly evil Ben Childress.

Like any good illusionist, De Palma leaves his best trick for the very end. The climactic scene is the perfect marriage of sight and sound. De Palma and his team including the iconic Composer John Williams are in total sync, delivering one of the most spectacular and satisfying conclusions in cinematic history. As I mentioned before, The Fury isn’t perfect. It wears a heck of a lot of hats. However its sheer audacity is what draws me to it time and again. When I’m experiencing the film from one beat to the next, none of its “problems” come to light. I’m invested 100%. That’s my definition of movie magic, folks.

With the Twilight Time release earlier this year, I was floored at the bad shape The Fury was in. Colors were washed out, dirt was consistently visible and the grain structure was a downright catastrophe. Thankfully Arrow Video took the time to put together their own restoration much like they did so gloriously with Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombie and Zombi 2). Supervised by James White at Deluxe Digital Cinema, the video is a flat-out revelation. Contrast is deep, detail is solid and the colors are not only apparent again, it looks pretty darn gorgeous. Dirt has been cleaned up significantly and to boot, grain looks healthy again. This is hands down, one of the finest restorations of the year. This marks the first time on home video, The Fury actually looks great. Well worth the purchase alone. Like the Twilight Time disc, we get two audio options; DTS-HD MA 4.0 and LPCM 2.0 (Twilight Time had a DTS-HD MA 2.0) plus John Williams’ unappreciated score on an isolated track…and it sounds the same which is a good thing.

Arrow offers up three information-stacked featurettes; “Blood on the Lens: An interview with Cinematographer Richard H. Kline” (27 mins), “Spinning Tales: Fiona Lewis on starring in The Fury” (13 minutes), “The Fury – A Location Journal: An interview with Sam Irvin, intern on The Fury, author of the film’s shooting diary and then correspondent for Cinefantastique magazine” (50 minutes). Irvin offers up an endless stream of anecdotes about the making of the film that more than makes up for the lack of commentary track. There’s also 23 minutes worth of original archive interviews from a 1978 promotional tour featuring Brian De Palma, producer Frank Yablans and stars Carrie Snodgress and Amy Irving. As a bonus, you get Irvin’s short Double Negative (18 mins) starring William Finley which pays homage to De Palma. It hasn’t dated too well yet still a neat addition. There are the usual production stills, trailer and the always cool reversible sleeves featuring a newly commissioned artwork by Stephen R. Bissette and the original poster. One of my favourite aspects of any Arrow release has got to be the booklets and The Fury has one of my favorites. It contains stills and posters, as well as three exceptional articles on the film. The pieces included are one from Chris Dumas, author of Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible, a brand new interview with Screenwriter John Farris and a reprint of a dynamite interview with Brian De Palma. Yet another knockout title from Arrow Video.

The Fury is one of those films where I’ve grown to appreciate as time goes on. Revisiting this stunning brand-new HD restoration has made me like it all the more. Armed with De Palma’s trademark virtuoso set-pieces, some seriously nutty plotting and tonal shifts, The Fury is non-stop entertainment. The film contains familiar elements but by smashing them all together into one package, the results are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This awesome Arrow Video release is the ONLY version of the film you need to own.

Snuff

Snuff is a slice of grindhouse cinema that has somehow evaded me all these years even though I knew of the legend growing up. Most of the controversy is stemmed from a marketing scheme that tried to make you think the film was actually bonafide snuff. This risqué yet ingenious campaign actually suckered folks including the government and police force enough to investigate and even trace down one of the supposed victims!? Snuff’s “plot” (and I mean that in the loosest sense) revolves around the violent rampages of a Manson-like cult leader and his gang of biker chicks. The film is actually a feature formally known as Slaughter with an additional sequence at the end created by the distributor. Slaughter is a sloppy, terribly acted art-house version of a grindhouse flick. As for the ending, it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the picture. It’s a violent, cheaply-made, purely exploitive death scene which was devised to create notoriety for its theatrical release. The idea behind this climax is intriguing yet doesn’t deliver any impact since it doesn’t gel with the 70-plus minutes that preceded it. If it wasn’t for the fabricated mystique, we wouldn’t be talking about Snuff today.

The HD transfer comes from one of the only remaining prints and it looks better than expected. Dirt and damage to the video is persistent throughout yet adds to the grindhouse feel of the picture. Colors look satisfying and there’s more detail than you’d think. The DTS-HD Mono track is as good as you’d expect from a 37-year old low budgeter. The good folks at Blue Underground give another cheapie wonderful care. Drive and Only God Forgives Director Nicolas Winding Refn makes a surprise appearance on this disc. He provides an intro, as well as the 8-minute “Up To ‘Snuff’: Interview With Nicolas Winding Refn” featurette in which he explains his attraction to this picture. “Porn Buster: Interview with FBI Agent Bill Kelly” is a brief 5-minute piece detailing his encounters with the film and actual cases of snuff. “Shooting ‘Snuff’: Interview with Carter Stevens (11 mins) is the highlight of this disc. Stevens gives an amusing and informative account of the film especially the shooting of the climatic sequence. “Snuff’: The Seventies and Beyond” article, two fun trailers and some still galleries round-up the set.

While I’m not a fan of Snuff, I’ll acknowledge its place in Grindhouse history. The weird, art-house vibe is my favourite aspect of the film. Ultimately this is one of those cases where the story revolving around the conception and release of the film is more fascinating than the final product itself.

Embrace of the Vampire (2013)

The 1995 erotic thriller Embrace of the Vampire is most notable for transitioning Commando and Who’s the Boss? star Alyssa Milano into adulthood. It was a shock (and delight) to see her bare it all for many crush-stricken fans that grew up alongside her. After revisiting it close to 18 years later for the purpose of this review, I was surprised to find that Embrace of the Vampire manages to work despite its stunt-casting no longer playing a factor. This hallucinatory little flick is about a reserved college freshman (Milano) who is seductively lured into the dark, uninhibited world by a vampire (the charismatic Martin Kemp of the criminally underseen gangster flick The Krays). The film is an effective tale of sexual liberation without ever becoming sleazy, as well as being a fresh enough take on the vampire sub-genre. Milano’s metamorphosis from this innocent, timid girl to an all-out goddess is the film’s most impressive feat which also ironically parallels her own blossoming career. Embrace of the Vampire isn’t high art of any kind yet for what it sets out to achieve, it succeeds.

Cut to 2013 and we get a DTV remake. It follows the first act fairly closely yet as it moves along, it somehow drifts away from the aspects that made the original appealing and becomes about not much of anything. As with most remakes, it naturally waters down the original’s thematic elements. I was with Embrace of the Vampire during its set-up period until the filmmakers settle on a monotonous structure consisted of: a) a lame and predictable “mystery” on the identity of the vampire and b) endlessly tiresome dream sequences. It’s too bad since the film contains some fine performances, a lovely backdrop and some good craftsmanship. As for the eroticism which was the original’s bread and butter, this remake is actually lacking in that department. Minus one notable sequence of girl on girl action, there’s really nothing here that’ll satisfy fans of the original. It’s of no fault of the attractive cast who do their best with what they’ve been given. Embrace of the Vampire doesn’t actually really go there which is surprising for a DTV title that boasts an unrated version on its front sleeve.

Anchor Bay delivers the goods on the A/V side. The vibrant cinematography is a step above most DTV fare and this HD presentation does it justice. There are zero supplements. As remakes go, Embrace of the Vampire isn’t the worst thing out there. However it contains nothing memorable enough to warrant a recommendation. After a promising first act, it falls flat and lingers there to the end. Stick to the original.

Nothing Left to Fear

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with legendary Guns n’ Roses Guitarist Slash about his love of horror. The passion was obvious from the get-go. When it came to his newly-formed production company Slasher Films, Slash and his team took their time to find the right project to make their launch. They ultimately chose Nothing Left to Fear, a supernatural horror/thriller inspired by the legend of Stull, Kansas. It tells the story of a family who move to the town where the father, Dan (James Tupper) is taking over as pastor. They soon find that their fate is tied to a deadly ancient ritual.

Nothing Left to Fear’s story and characterization is straightforward. This allows Director Anthony Leonardi III to spend the majority of the running time building mood, a rarity in genre filmmaking as of late. My main issue with this is that Leonardi III spends a tad too much of the film’s duration doing this which results in moments of tedium. A lot of this is due to the lack of genuine surprise in the plotting itself. The motives of the townsfolk are revealed far too early and while this can often assist in creating a sense of dread, it isn’t the case here. Nothing terribly eventful happens despite fine work by the entire ensemble including the always reliable Clancy Brown (Starship Troopers). The viewer just ends up sitting there waiting till the third act finally kicks into gear. Thankfully once the shit hits the fan, Nothing Left to Fear delivers just fine. There isn’t anything here we haven’t seen before but it works well enough. One of my favourite aspects of the film has got to be the score from Slash and Nicholas O’Toole. It goes a long way to create the right feel for the piece and hits the creepy factor to great effect during the finale.

As with the Embrace of the Vampire remake, Nothing Left to Fear looks better than expected for a DTV title and the transfer reflects that. The video looks nicely detailed, featuring pleasant-looking colors. I have issues with the underwhelming sound design during the third act but it’s of no fault of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix which sounds good at all times. The 16-minute “Nothing Left to Fear: Behind the Scenes” featurette is a decent piece but if you want more substantial info on the making of the movie, you’ll find it in the breezy commentary track by Producer/Composer Slash, Composer O’Toole and Director Leonardi III.

While it’s nothing to get all worked up about, Nothing Left to Fear is a cut above most DTV releases. A lot of these titles focus on the blood and guts so it’s nice to see one more preoccupied with atmosphere. Fans of John Carpenter’s The Fog and The Wicker Man (the original, of course) might find something to appreciate here. Overall, a promising start for Slasher Films.