Posts tagged Jonathan Gries

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Digi-Schlock: TERRORVISION/THE VIDEO DEAD (Scream Factory Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack)

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Though it has made its name with deluxe editions of famous horror and sci-fi cult favorites, Scream Factory is quickly expanding its profile by moving into the more obscure corners of the catalog title world.  Their new double-feature set of Terrorvision and The Video Dead is an impressive example of their work in this area.  This savvy pairing of two t.v.-themed horror favorites from the VHS era gives the films a serious upgrade in transfers as well as a hefty stack of extras.

Both films have been given new anamorphic, high-definition transfers that will impress fans who became used to watching these films on VHS.  Terrorvision is particularly impressive, with the sleek photography and the vivid color scheme of the production design popping right off the screen with a new level of clarity.  The Video Dead has a rougher, low-budget visual style but it looks good here, with appropriate film green and a sharpness of detail that was never seen in its videotape incarnation.

In terms of audio, both films feature their vintage 2.0 mixes as well as new 5.1 remixes, with all options presented in a lossless format on the blu-ray.  The 5.1/lossless options were utilized for these reviews and both sound quite good: dialogue is clear on both, surrounds are used subtly but effectively and the electronic-layered musical scores get a boost in depth from the remix.

Each film also features an array of special features, most of them produced especially for this disc.  Fans of The Video Dead will be surprised to see this cult favorite got not one but two commentary tracks, both moderated by superfan Chris MacGibbon.  The first features writer/director Robert Scott, editor Bob Sarles and FX man Dale Hall Jr. while the second track features cast members Roxanna Augesen and Rocky Duvall, production manager Jacques Thelemaque and FX men Patrick Denver and Hall.

The first track is the best as Scott is able to go into the hows and whys behind his choices, with his cohorts adding interesting technical details on their work.  The second track is more raucous and unfocused but has the occasional nugget of interest for fans, like Duvall’s memory of how he attended an audition for the film over the objections of his high school drama teacher(!).

The Video Dead extras also include an original theatrical trailer, just under two minutes of outtake footage (mainly slates & behind the scenes stuff) and a featurette about the makeup effects.  The latter segment is entitled “Pre-RecorDEAD” and utilizes interviews with Hall and Denver to discuss their work.  Both are proud of what they accomplished on a short schedule – they had only two weeks of prep time – and go into detail about how the zombie makeups were achieved and specific shock moments, like the chainsaw zombie dismembering scene.  Hall also relates a particularly funny anecdote about a doing a cast on a female cast member.

Terrorvision‘s extras are smaller in number but potent.  The first is a commentary track that pairs writer/director Ted Nicolaou with stars Diane Franklin and Jon Gries.  It’s a very scene-specific track, with Nicolaou laying out production info while Franklin and Gries offer appreciations from the actors’ perspective.  A lot of the big points they make overlap with the featurette but they have a humor-filled camaraderie that makes the track a pleasant listen.

The commentary is pretty decent but the featurette for Terrorvision is even better: “Monsters On Demand” is an expansive 34-minute retrospective that includes everyone from the commentary plus actress Mary Woronov, producer Charles Band, FX man John Buechler and more.  The anecdotes move at a nice clip, deftly intercut with clips from the film as the participants describe the film’s poster-inspired genesis, the relaxed charm of shooting a film in Italy and the reasons Terrorvision was essentially buried during its original release.  It all adds up to another strong featurette from Red Shirt Pictures and the kind of thing that any cult film fan will enjoy.

The package for Terrorvision is rounded out by an image gallery that includes stills, behind the scenes photos and promotional art. Like the film itself, the images are colorful and wild.

All in all, this blu-ray/DVD set offers a generous and technically-impressive package for two films that most genre fans would have never expected to get such a treatment.  It’s another fine edition for Scream Factory and will leave fans hoping that they continue to give genre rarities this kind of attention.

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TERRORVISION: Transmission From The Bizarro Dimension

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Genre fans will debate the merits of his genre-film mill but Charles Band must be given credit for at least one thing: he isn’t afraid to take a gamble on a wacky idea.  During his 1980’s glory days with Empire Pictures, he produced several films with all manner of offbeat premises: Trancers, Re-Animator and Troll are just a few of the sincerely strange films that rolled out of that company during this time.  However, Band set a tough-to-top benchmark for willful weirdness when he pulled the trigger on Terrorvision.  This gleefully eccentric blend of sci-fi, camp and satire could be the strangest thing he ever lent his name to.

Terrorvision revolves around the home of the Puttermans, a family of all-American suburbanite whack-jobs.  Dad Stanley (Gerrit Graham) is obsessed with gadgets, particularly television, and is a proud swinger along with mom Raquel (Mary Woronov).  Young son Sherman (Chad Allen) is left to his own devices and spends much of his time with survivalism-obsessed Grampa (Bert Remsen), who has taught the boy to be obsessed with the military.  Meanwhile, teen daughter Suzy (Diane Franklin) indulges her love of new wave style and dates perpetually air-guitaring metalhead O.D. (Jonathan Gries).

However, trouble in paradise rears its extraterrestrial head when Stanley’s new satellite dish receives the wrong transmission.  It seems that an alien trash-disposal facility has accidentally beamed a hungry, slimy monster right into their satellite’s feed.  The facility tries to warn the family but they misinterpret the warnings as some old b-movie.  In short order, their lives become a bizarro-world version of E.T. as they slowly become aware that their home has been invaded via cathode rays – and said alien begins picking off their ranks.

To put it mildly, Terrorvision is acquired taste – even if you’re already a b-movie veteran.  Writer/director Ted Nicolaou goes for an odd brand of comedy where sight gags and verbal humor are forsaken in favor of free-form weirdness that fixates on grotesquerie of both the human and alien varieties.  Nicolaou also directs his (admittedly amazing) cast in a relentlessly high-key style that ensures all line deliveries and reactions are over the top from the very beginning.  This  choice doesn’t give him anywhere to go in terms of building energy and guarantees the movie will wear on your nerves if you aren’t in the precise mood for it.

However, if you can stick with its confrontationally oddball approach, Terrorvision can be a strangely hypnotic experience.  The film’s mix of John Waters-ish outrageousness (think Polyester) with kitschy, ’50s-derived science fiction elements is a one-of-a-kind proposition and a dream cast of cult movie actors gives it their all: Graham and Woronov are particularly inspired and make an excellent team.  It also helps that the film is gorgeous to look at: Giovanni Natalucci’s candy-colored production design is eye-popping, particularly the sleaze-chic design of the Putterman home, and the elegant cinematography from Empire regular Mac Ahlberg captures its contours in high style.

In short, Terrorvision is an experiment that doesn’t entirely work but its otherworldly mixture of camp and b-movie elements is so outlandish that it remains interesting viewing for cult movie aficionados.  Anyone amused by Charles Band’s work during his Empire era should check it out – even at his genre-bending weirdest, he seldom let his filmmakers go this far off the beaten path.

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Digi-Schlock: SOUTH OF HEAVEN (Synapse DVD)

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Hundreds of films see video release every year but even more never make it to any kind of release.  This is especially true for the independent film market, where countless films languish without ever making it to an audience.  Thankfully, there are video labels that are willing to experiment with smaller films.  Synapse Films is a noteworthy example and has really expanded its reach in the last few years to take in this kind of cinematic orphan.  South Of Heaven is their latest release in this vein – and they’ve given it the same kind of loving care that their better known genre releases receive.

South Of Heaven is skillfully shot for a low-budget indie and Synapse’s DVD does justice to its unique look, which offers a unique blend of shadowy interiors and attention-getting primary colors.  The anamorphic image is free of debris and looks quite crisp.  Equal attention has been given to the audio area, with 2.0 and 5.1 stereo mixes.  The 5.1 mix was listened to for this review: its blend of elements is clear and it makes strong use of Russ Howard III’s richly-textured musical score.

Extras are also plentiful on this disc.  For starters, there is a whopping three(!) commentary tracks on this disc.  The first is a filmmaker commentary that includes writer/director J.L. Vara, cinematographer Darren Genet and producers Brian Udovitch and Jason Polstein.  Vara takes the lead from the get-go and leads the listener through a fast-paced stream of comments that outline the many influences he incorporated into his script and visuals.  The others do a fine job of backing him up, outlining the on-a-shoestring nature of how the production was assembled and the many tricks involved in making the film look bigger than it is.  There is also a lot of praise for Shea Whigham’s acting chops and dedication to his role.

The cast commentary features Adam & Aaron Nee, Shea Whigham and Jonathan Gries.  Everyone has something worthwhile to offer here as the quartet discusses the intense level of dedication the film’s dialogue and characterizations required, with each effectively conveying the choices they made to make it work onscreen and the dedication required to pull it off.  Gries in particular is a fun storyteller, with some amusing stories about his interplay offscreen with onscreen partner Thomas Jay Ryan.

The final commentary features a trio of film critics: Devin Faraci from Badass Digest, Scott Weinberg from Fearnet and Todd Brown from Twitch.  Sadly, it doesn’t have much to offer.  Critical commentaries work best when the film is a classic that can be researched or pair the critic with the filmmaker.  The critics on this commentary are enthusiastic about the film and offer some interesting commentary early on but they run out of material after 30 minutes.  They also commit a pretty embarrassing gaffe when they misidentify actress Elina Lowensohn and question why she used a “strange” accent (it’s her real accent and she’s a fairly prolific indie and foreign film actress).  The rest of the track devolves into padding, including griping about unappreciative readers and making boobie jokes.  There is one interesting story about how a particular Smiths song was licensed for the film near the end but it’s a bit of a slog to get there.

The remaining extras are three of Vara’s student films: Miserable Orphan, Azole Dkmuntch and A Boy And His Fetus.  These are pretty tough to sit through, by design: they are self-consciously artsy, dark to the point of morbid, more than a little pretentious and astringent in both storyline and technique. They also tend to be overlong, lacking the narrative economy Vara would bring to his first feature.  That said, anyone who loves the main feature will find them of archival interest as they represent Vara’s early work with collaborators who would be important to South Of Heaven, particularly the Nee brothers.

To sum up, this is a surprisingly deluxe edition for such a small film and Synapse deserves kudos for giving this uncompromising film such a professional treatment.  If your taste extends to edgy indie fare, South Of Heaven is worth a look.

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SOUTH OF HEAVEN: A Festival Movie For Cult Movie People

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If you spend enough time at film festivals, you quickly learn what a “festival movie” is.  This description refers to a film that rarely escapes beyond the film festival circuit to find a general audience.  That’s mainly because the filmmakers who create such films are rarely concerned with crossover success and are more devoted to their personal aesthetic obsessions.  Such films rarely cost much money yet frequently have impressive actors in the cast, because they are catnip to actors who are into their craft.

In other words, a festival movie is unconventional type of experience that puts demands on the viewer in a way a mainstream film never would.  That said, such an experience can be rewarding if the viewer’s interests synch up with those of the filmmaker.  That brings us to South Of Heaven: it is very much a festival movie but  it’s the kind of festival movie that genre people can relate to because it speaks their language.

The simplest way to explain the plot of South Of Heaven is to describe it as a story of two brothers in trouble.  Roy Coop (Adam Nee) is a nice guy and aspiring writer who finishes a tour of duty and comes home to move in with his brother Dale (Aaron Nee).  Problem one: Dale is nowhere to be found.  Problem two: a pair of hoods (Jonathan Gries, Thomas Jay Ryan) show up looking for Dale, who they claim has kidnapped a wealthy hood’s daughter.  They’re convinced that Roy is Dale and begin working him over in brutal ways to get the location of the daughter.

Meanwhile, Dale is dealing with problems of his own.  He is the terrified “partner” of Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham), a quietly deranged hood who is responsible for the kidnapping.  He is determined to get a ransom for the girl – and just as determined, for reasons not immediately specified, that Dale be his partner in this crime.  What follows is best left to the audience to discover for themselves… but these two brothers will meet again and their reunion will be a surreal high-stakes affair.

The end result is a curious but intriguing mix of styles and moods.  Writer/director J.L. Vara allows his imagination to run wild but his plotting is highly disciplined, with character and story info revealed in a piecemeal way that keeps surprising viewers up the very end.  It is infused with a streak of the absurd but it is played totally straight, no matter how wild the storyline becomes.  There is a noteworthy amount of brutal violence but Vara plays it out in a sleight-of-hand manner, leaning on suggestion to get at the viewer in a way that is more psychological than visceral.  The most interesting element of the film is that it uses minimalistic sets, including painted backdrops for outdoor scenes, but its photography makes bold use of primary colors and also mixes in bits of animation at key junctures.

Simply put, South Of Heaven is not a film for the general audience.  Its blend of pulpy crime-story archetypes, black humor, brutal violence and willful weirdness is likely to baffle the casual viewer.  That said, it’s not a difficult sell to the cult movie audience.  Vara draws the narrative and visual lexicon for his film from sources like film noir, the giallo, Tex Avery cartoons and Coen Brothers-esque dark comedy.

Even better, he comes up with offbeat but effective combinations of these elements, creating a stylized landscape that can be surprisingly hypnotic.  The camerawork from Darren Genet is elegant (look for those 360-degree panning shots) and an unexpectedly lush musical score by Russ Howard III is elegant yet obsessive, creating a mood somewhere between Danny Elfman and Blue Velvet-era Angelo Badalamenti.

Best of all, Vara plays his material straight.  Despite the film’s high level of stylization, the director avoids the temptation of winking at the audience in an “ain’t I clever?” way.  He establishes the film’s oddball rules early on and sticks by them to the end.

The same can be said for the cast.  Shea Whigham gives an impressive performance as Mad Dog, creating a character that is menacing and witty by turns without ever raising his voice or going for cheap theatrics.  His performance is a pure mixture of presence and commitment to his oddball role – and he just kills it in every scene.  Gries and Ryan also impress as the thug duo, playing their outsize roles in a controlled manner that hits a similar combination of humor and menace.

Elsewhere, Elina Lowensohn of Nadja fame dazzles as a femme fatale type who takes a curious interest in Roy’s predicament – she’s got a showstopping monologue at an important moment in the film that she nails – and a deglammed Diora Baird adds a needed note of sweetness as an ignored girlfriend who becomes Dale’s love interest.  That said, the core of the piece in terms of acting are the brothers Nee.  They offer subtle performances that are comic and dramatic by turns, underplaying in a sly way that makes them stand out amidst the more stylized character types.  Adam in particular undergoes an impressive transformation as the film progresses while Aaron shows an unusually skillful use of body language to express his character’s emotions.

In summation, South Of Heaven is challenging but rewarding viewing, a rare kind of “festival movie” project whose sense of eccentricity plays into the interests of the cult movie crowd.  If you’re up for its challenges, it delivers a memorable and worthwhile experience.

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Schlock-Wire: Synapse Films Takes You SOUTH OF HEAVEN This October

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Synapse does consistently strong work in restoring vintage fare but they also have an ever-growing sideline in current films.  They’ll add another notch to that belt in October when they release South Of Heaven, an over-the-top revenge tale with an eclectic cast that includes cult favorite Jonathan Gries as well as starlet Diora Baird.  It will include an anamorphic transfer, a 5.1 stereo mix and a nice little complement of special features.  Read on for all the neo-noirish details…

NOBODY IS HIS NAME.

REVENGE IS HIS GAME!

A bold anti-hero origin story steeped with atmosphere and ultraviolence!

When Roy Coop finished his stint in the Navy, he only had two things on his mind: seeing his brother Dale, and writing the great American novel. What he gets, however, is the homecoming from Hell! A pair of violent vaudevillians (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE’s Jon Gries, and Thomas Jay Ryan) mistake him for his brother, looking to collect on a debt he didn’t know he owed.

Eight fingers later, Roy is burnt to a crisp, forged by fire into a new man. Roy is dead. Nobody is born.

Now it’s Nobody’s turn to have his wicked revenge, and to save his brother before it’s too late. Wrapped in bandages and ready for blood, Nobody is determined to kill those that gets in his way, even the murdering masochist named Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham, MACHETE and HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE).

Dodging bullets and dodging dames, Nobody meets the nasty ne’er-do-wells Lily (Diora Baird, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING) and Veronica (Elina Löwensohn, SCHINDLER’S LIST). In this wonderful neo-film-noir, violence and vengeance are destined to meet in a little town they call… SOUTH OF HEAVEN.

Special Features and Disc Info (SOUTH OF HEAVEN):

– Three Audio Commentaries Featuring Director J.L. Vara, Star Shea Whigham and other cast/crew. Critic Commentary includes Todd Brown (twitchfilm.com), Scott Weinberg (fearnet.com) and Devin Faraci (badassdigest.com)

– Three Short Films by Director J.L. Vara: MISERABLE ORPHAN, AZOLE DKMUNTCH and A BOY AND HIS FETUS

Director: J.L. Vara

Starring: Shea Whigham, Diora Baird, Elina Löwensohn

Run Time: 97 minutes

Release Date: October 11, 2011

Language: English (5.1 Surround)

Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic 1.78:1

Format: DVD

Price: $19.95

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