Sunday, October 30, 2011

Final Exam/Elvira's Movie Macabre/Night of the Demon

FINAL EXAM  (R, 1981, Scorpion Releasing, street date: September 20, 2011, SRP: $19.99).

ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE: THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA/THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON (NR, 1973, Entertainment One, street date: June 14, 2011, SRP: $14.98).

NIGHT OF THE DEMON (NR, 1980, Code Red, street date: October 11, 2011, SRP: $19.98).

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It's Saturday night and you just don't feel like living it up on the outside. Allergies, exhaustion, maybe even a hot date you're taking home...whatever the reason, you're in the mood to settle in tonight. Perhaps you prefer to turn on the TV and indulge in some cheap thrills via a creature feature or psycho killer thriller. The days of Fright Night and Chiller Theatre may have long since passed, but a comforting presence has returned from the crypt of nostalgia to entertain and arouse you in her own inimitable fashion. You remember the tall brunette wig, the form-fitting Gothic dress, the salacious puns delivered with a sassy yet droll San Fernando Valley dialect. The image is unmistakable, the persona is jovial, the name is the stuff of mammaries...


Oh, fuck it (and you know you wish you could), I'm talking about Elvira, Mistress of the Dark! She's back, and syndicated television is better off now that she has returned to the airwaves. The heir apparent to Vampira but with a more pronounced camp attitude, Cassandra Peterson's beloved alter ego was resurrected in September 2010 with a library full of public domain films and her curvaceous arsenal of snappy, snarky humor still in abundance. Suppose, though, that you haven't properly trained your TiVo to record any of the "Elvira's Movie Macabre" broadcasts in the past year. Luckily, Entertainment One has unleashed a roster of DVDs similar to the classic Shout! Factory library from 2006-2007. Most of the movies are old reliables, many of them previously lampooned on MST3k or Rifftrax, that still languish in patent-proof purgatory: Night of the Living Dead, The Terror, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, Eegah!, Tormented, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, and many more.

Furthermore, the brothers Olsen, Walter and Bill, have tapped a couple of prominent personalities to play hostess for their own respective line of obscure horror titles. For Walter Olsen over at Scorpion Releasing, Katie Lea Winter...Katarina Leigh Waters, ex-WWE Diva and current TNA Knockout, provides humor and insight in spades for "Katarina's Nightmare Theater." Amongst the many titles one may expect this fine British model/athlete/filmmaker to shepherd onto digital video: The Devil Within Her (Joan Collins, Donald Pleasance, a young Caroline Munro, a vengeful dwarf, and a cursed pregnancy); Nothing but the Night (a murder mystery reuniting Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing post-Hammer); Humongous (Paul Lynch's 1982 follow-up to Prom Night, set on a deserted island save for a group of young adults and a demonic mawg); The Carpenter (as in Wings "Neon Slime" Hauser!); and, one which I very recently picked up, The Pyx (in which Christopher Plummer investigates the bizarre demise of a prostitute, played by Karen Black).

Bill Olsen and Code Red have secured the presence of Maria Kanellis, perky Playboy covergirl, Celebrity Apprentice contestant and, like Katarina, a former WWE fixture, for "Maria's B-Movie Mayhem." And what's on the menu for the bodacious Illinois native to serve? Schlocky double feature packages such as Scream/Barn of the Naked Dead (the former a slasher movie most definitely not a Wes Craven joint, the other featuring both Andrew Prine and Jennifer Ashley from The Centerfold Girls); Vampire at Midnight (another possible Craven confusion, this one's a forgotten hunk of Beverly Hills cheese from the late 1980s); Mardi Gras Massacre (a Blood Feast rip-off that joined H.G. Lewis' maiden splatter voyage in Video Nasties infamy); and Haunted, certainly one of the more entertainingly weird and inept movies to involve a topless horseback death sentence(?!) and slumming turns from both Aldo Ray and Virginia Mayo.

This week, I decided to focus on three specific DVDs apiece to each of these programs. From the Scorpion-distributed "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" series, I chose Jimmy Huston's 1981 campus creeper Final Exam, which was previously released on special edition DVD through a joint effort by Code Red and BCI Eclipse. As for Code Red, my selection is catalog #61, James C. Wasson's 1980 Video Nasty favorite Night of the Demon, which involves Sasquatch and the detachable crotch. And in the many double feature discs to bear the "Elvira's Movie Macabre" label, I opted for the bizarre tag team of The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the final Hammer effort to star Christopher Lee as the Count, and The Werewolf of Washington, which makes a return engagement having previously been issued through Shout! Factory in a version I haven't seen.

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"Some may pass the test...God help the rest."

Writer/director Jimmy Huston's Final Exam duly begins with a quarterback and his clingy girlfriend making out in the closest available spot of their native March College that could even be considered "Lover's Lane." And the scene ends with a psychopath slashing through the roof of the convertible, pulling the driver out as the car is in traction and totally tenderizing this unlucky beefcake with a butcher's knife as his lover screams hysterically over and over again. There isn't even any time to enjoy a private little cramming session without fear of your army jacket-clad TA busting you for cheating.

Ah, but that was March College, in the kind of rural environment where two victims is enough to be warranted a massacre by the smart-alecks over at Lanier College, who are currently in the midst of final examination week. Gamma fraternity brothers Mark (John Fallon) and Wildman (Ralph Brown) concoct an elaborate scheme to stop their chemistry test dead so that Mark can cheat his way to a B minus. Living now in the age of Virginia Tech and Foster the People, there was once a way to stage a terrorist bloodbath in an innocuous manner just to make sure your report card was up to snuff. The only person not in on the joke is resident brain and devotee of all things psychotic Radish (Joel S. Rice), who phones the sheriff and winds up explaining to him that it was all a hoax. At least Radish got the make of the vehicle and the license plate number, which puts the finger on Wildman.

The killer cases out the campus as the viewer gets in a handful of scenes involving the Gammas plotting revenge on Radish and figuring out ways to torment eager beaver pledge Gary (Terry W. Farren), who pins the sweater of his steady Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch) only to be tied to a tree in his jockeys, covered in shaving cream and have buckets of ice poured down his underwear. Even the security guard, aware that you don't mess with the grand tradition that is hazing, tortures the poor fella with his flask of whiskey. And the endearingly fey Radish tries at his most awkwardly sincere to brighten the spirits of self-conscious coed Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) with pep talks over a fifth of Irish whiskey.

Once Huston has exploited this local color and given you more than enough establishment of character, that's when the knife-wielding stranger (played by martial arts trainer Timothy L. Raynor) pushes it into overdrive as he picks off the pledge, his lover, the Gammas, and anybody else unlucky enough to be alone on campus. He even kicks Wildman's ass across the gymnasium before suffocating him with a weight-lifting machine. Methodical, mysterious and without motive, this unlikely professor of pain intends on making quite a few tardy for their next day's brain-busting assessments.

The previous DVD release's breezy cast reunion commentary has been replaced here with an all-new track featuring producer Myron Meisel, moderated by Katarina Leigh herself. Meisel's memory is boundless even after 30 years since the film's release, especially in regards to the basics of production and the mandates of Motion Picture Marketing, the distributors of not just Final Exam but also The Gates of Hell, Hell of the Living Dead, The Concrete Jungle, and Savage Streets. MPM's strategy was to create a marketing campaign first and then get the ball rolling on a six-month window of making the proper film. According to Meisel, not only was the conscious choice made to deliver "the softest possible R" for the sake of catering to young audiences wary of explicit bloosdhed, but MPM demanded that any given scene must copy at least two other previously lucrative movies.

Naturally, Final Exam plays like a booksmart apprentice of Halloween, what with its brutal but mostly bloodless murder sequences, the spatial framework between these essential elements and the greater emphasis on lurking fear. The movie holds back on the violence for a great deal of time, using the memorable school shooting fake-out as a means of teasing the audience as they settle in for a vignette-style string of interactions between the young characters. The movie picks up the exploitative pace after nearly an hour's time has elapsed, and Huston finally delivers with style the relentless carnage one expects of the slasher genre. Some of my favorite touches include the use of an overhead scoreboard for gallows humor, the unexpected death of a character after being given the survivalist urge to become heroic and the ominous aesthetic choices made to conceal or reveal the killer's location in the frame.

The admittedly derivative result of the film's germination doesn't prevent it from attempting to be unique, which is why the slasher genre as a whole appeals to me as much as it aggravates. The consensus from online reviewers and DVD critics tends to out this one as one of the more sluggish, tame efforts of the genre. Certainly, I agree with the latter accusation: Final Exam doesn't push the envelope as far as being extremely grisly, campy or psychological. But like Halloween or My Bloody Valentine, much of my respect comes from the slow-burn tension and commitment to creating standout personas even as the characters fit into stock categories. Radish himself, with his morbid true crime fascination and assortment of schlock posters adorning his dorm room walls (Ted V. Mikels' The Corpse Grinders, Dennis Donnelly's The Toolbox Murders, Edgar G. Ulmer's obscure film noir Murder Is My Beat), has the kind of savvy of one of the slasher film junkies from Scream. And the giddy goon known only as Wildman is the horror lexicon's unsung equivalent of a Bluto or an Ogre.

And try not to watch the conclusion and ponder the influence it had on one Tommy Jarvis.

Okay, so let's talk about Katarina, who begins the "Nightmare Theater" wraparound segments surveying all aspects of the communal theatergoing experience as the credits roll. The format from what I've seen so far, between this and The Pyx, provides as an intro a comedic skit related to the movie and a general overview of the feature presentation. Once the movie is over, you get final thoughts, an intro to the trailer reel, and finally a goodbye replete with end titles. The structure is rock solid. What sets Katarina apart from Elvira and Maria is that as a hostess, she refrains from the gimmickry of keeping in-character and speaks with natural warmth about the film. It's suprisingly classy, if a little constraining, but I can't wait to see most of the film's on Scorpion's roster, and Katarina's straightforward appeal might grow on me even more than it does now.

In regards to Final Exam, though, the real draw is the new high definition transfer of the movie in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen. Going back to the original camera negatives for reference, Scorpion have given this film the loving remastering that was missing from the BCI edition. The newly minted preciseness of detail, especially in regards to the lack of abnormal crush whenever the killer appears, and warmer, more concise color saturation, primarily in regards to shadows and blacks, is astounding. Even better, the framing is significantly tighter and with more scope than the prior edition, besting the open matte transfers of old. I would like to compare this with Synapse's revelatory HD revival of Bloody Birthday, another low-budget horror effort from 1981, but Scorpion seem to be in a league of their own. The Dolby 2.0 monaural mix has the faint crackle of Rice Krispies from time to time, but also gives fine clarity to Gary Scott's compositions and allows for consistently audible dialogue.

Excepting the exclusive audio commentary with the unflappable Mr. Meisel and Katarina's gracious presence on-camera, the major ports from the OOP BCI release are the brief interview profiles with actors Joel S. Rice, Cecil Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch plus the original red band theatrical trailer. The package comes with a reversible cover for those who don't want the "Nightmare Theatre" banner on display and there's an insert with photos for other in Katarina's catalog, plus a lovely photo of the woman herself.

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"Warning - this film contains scenes of extreme and explicit violence," disclaims the original U.K. video box for Night of the Demon, also memorable because of the faux-Oscar statue on the bottom right corner of the sleeve. This is a case of truth in advertising that ended up biting Iver Film Services Limited on the ass. The British moral majority seized upon this title in the early 1980s as one of the 74 official "Video Nasties" cassette releases. Although a great deal of the movies were dropped and officially presented on the market in their uncut forms, this 1980 obscurity and 38 others were successfully prosecuted as being legally obscene. The future isn't grim for these supposed corruptors of adolescence. Things have lightened up so much recently that even a film like Island of Death, a particularly volatile cocktail of incest, bestiality and sheer brutality, has an uncensored DVD edition via English genre specialists Arrow Films.

Don't mistake this for the beloved Jacques Tournier film from 1957 nor the pluralized Night of the Demons, be it the original 1988 cult classic or 2010 remake. Night of the Demon is one of the more anomalous entries in the Video Nasties canon, the ultra-violent but redundant story about the pilgrimage taken by an archaeology professor and several students to Bigfoot territory. The tempation to compare this to fellow Nasty Don't Go in the Woods...Alone is hard to deny, so here's a different analogy: Imagine if Charles B. Pierce had made The Legend of Boggy Creek, but spiced it up with the sensationalistic violence of his later The Town That Dreaded Sundown (those who've seen it no doubt remember to keep their trombones in the safest places). But Pierce is a paragon of tastefulness compared to what director James C. Wasson and the story/script writers have imagined for the victims in this one.

Those who've read about this movie know about the show-stopping scene where a biker pulls over to drain the main vein near some bushes, only to get the handjob from Hell from Sasquatch itself. Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy wrote a solid review that sums up the shame of having to admit to experiencing this particular celluloid scenario to people you know or wish to know. Wasson gives us a brief flash of the exposed member being snatched by Bigfoot, which is already unpleasant, but then keeps the camera still as the actor walks toward the camera clenching his groin. But, forgive the phrasing, that's merely the tip of the iceberg in the movie's portrayal of Bigfoot as a psychosexual killing machine.

Told as a flashback that laughably cuts to flashbacks whenever a character opens his/her mouth to spin the yarn about a missing person, the catalyst for the film is one Professor Nugent, bandaged heavily around his jaw but capable of fluent speech. Nugent is the sole survivor of an expedition taken when the father of one of his students, Carla, is gorily dispatched whilst fishing in the woods where Bigfoot roams. Carla relates to Nugent's class what happened to a couple in their shaggin' wagon in a moment that must be seen to be laughed off in disbelief. Bigfoot barges in, grabs the naked man and drags him across the hood of the car, finally revealing his bloodied visage against the front windshield. What makes this moment more unintentionally funnyr than anything in Don't Go in the Woods are the orgasmic reactions from not just the ravaged victim but also the lonely woman cowering in supposed fear. Either Wasson hired the actors from the realms of amateur porn or he sincerely decreed that they both make O-faces and scream "Oooh! Aaah!" as a goof.

Later on, two of Nugent's associates get romantic by the campfire when Bigfoot sneaks up on the male and claws his back. The group deduces that this is a scare tactic, but decide to sally forth regardless. Allow me to reiterate that this group already heard about the previous Sasquatch-related sex crimes involving the van and the biker. At no point does any of the men in the outfit reasonably declare his desire to keep his pecker inside his pants and tell the rest of the team "I'm going back now!" All the Crotch Guard in the world wouldn't make me stay.

The interminable investigative efforts of the group reveal the existence of a woman known as "Crazy Wanda," a mute recluse who also turns out to be the illegitmate mother of Baby Bigfoot. She knows his love is real, especially after her brutish, Bible-thumping father (played by...someone definitely not Royal Dano) whips her merciless for the crime of having a romantic stroll near the like with a normal homosapien man. He stands idly back with his shotgun as his daughter is violated by the Missing Link, who lives down that name by virtue of the beef injection he foists upon poor Wanda. And then he prays to Christ to purge Wanda of her demon seed, even if that means taking her life. Robert Mitchum, Claude Akins and Piper Laurie are like The Father, The Son and Holy Ghost in comparison to this God-fearing bastard. 

Wasson has an eye for some nifty camera angles and spills the crimson consistently with leering efficiency. But the tediously-constructed outline of events and the abysmal characterization (and resulting wooden performances) encourages one to scream for the campers to shut their mouths so we can see another violent Bigfoot encounter. There is a particularly funny moment one where a guy tries to introduce himself as Roy to a potential seer of Sasquatch only to be met with an indifferent "Meh." This response carries over to the audience's identification with the campers. Only Crazy Wanda McGinty emerges as the most sympathetic human of the bunch, having been terrorized by not just her father but his backwoods cult, too, who hold ritualistic rape sessions with men in Yeti masks and an towering effigy of her baby's daddy. Even the campers themselves resort to exploitative measures that seal their impending doom in the viewer's mind. Wasson obliges with a hellacious finale in Wanda's cabin that finds the damaged woman rocking back in her chair as Bigfoot attempts to break in and prove Professor Nugent's somnambulent observation that "Bigfoot's not playing games anymore."

Certainly, Wasson is through fooling around by this point, as we get a slow-motion finale full of wad-shooting splatter effects to be bookended by the downer conclusion/merciful end regarding Professor Nugent's testimony.

Used to be that you had to pay a small fortune just to get this title on VHS, so here's to Code Red for finally deeming this Nasty movie worthy of a digital release. Certainly the kind of movie made for audiences with cabinets full of drink and copious boxes of pepperoni pizza, Night of the Demon goes one step further with the appearance of Maria Kanellis. Certainly the most scantily-clad of the three hostesses featured in this lengthy review, Maria is also more bubbly than a bottle of champaggin. The interstitial skits with her begin to rely on the kind of scripted corny one-liners that Elvira specializes in and Katarina avoids, with nods to Facebook and giddy repetition of the word "penis." Despite Maria's perkiness, it all feels underwhelming and forced. This is another case where I feel I need to see more evidence of her horror-hosting abilities to make a final judgement call, but my current consensus is that she feels stuck in the middle between Elvira and Katarina, and with the next review, I'm afraid there's the possibility I will have found my preferred B-horror hostess.

Code Red warns you that a one-inch tape master was used as the basis for the digital transfer of Night of the Demon. That being said, the fullframe video image is certainly rough at spots with the kind of artifacts that come with the territory of film stock. But the smeary VHS haze is nowhere to be seen and there is at least a consistency to the picture quality that doesn't warrant the usual animosity of consumers, who in this case have expressed outrage over the cover artwork with Maria on the front (like Final Exam, there is a reversible sleeve for those ashamed of having a woman adorn their schlocky DVD pictoral). The DVD itself proclaims the film as being "Un-cut..." in parentheses, but in this case I believe them. There's certainly an X-rated amount of gore here, and the castrated cyclist scene appears to have undergone no startling frame jumps or awkward edits. Audio quality is in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, which is also a step up in clarity especially if you're a fan of unnecessarily shrill music cues.

Bonus features = nil. The familiar array of Code Red trailers (including two Leo Fong/Cameron Mitchell tag team efforts in Killpoint and Low Blow) and the music video for Maria Kanellis' song "Fantasy" are recoccurring. Since a lot of the cast and crew went into obscurity, I'm not bothered by the lack of interviews or commentary. That said, what I wouldn't give for a dandy British cinephile like Kim Newman, Allan Bryce (who discussed this briefly in the three-disc Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide) or Stephen Thrower to provide a feature-length dissertation on this movie.
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Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, bosom buddy to an entire generation of night owls perched on the couch looking for a safe but communal experience, is back. And front, let's not neglect that. Cassandra Peterson is now in her golden years, but the red-headed comedienne who got her start as an exotic dancer (mythically modeling pasties and a g-string on the cover of Tom Waits' seminal Small Change LP from 1976) has aged miraculously. I feel like researching whether or not the population of male virgins has decreased in the years since her absence from airwaves.

Shout! Factory did a good enough job reissuing her early 1980s appearances on DVD, but Entertainment One has now picked up Peterson's recent revival of Elvira's Movie Macabre and are presenting double-feature discs that include two separate broadcasts of the program. Unlike the Scorpion and Code Red titles with Katarina and Maria, eOne has preserved the full-frame, edited-for-television formatting native to watching the shows proper, only here without commercials. The movies themselves look sourced from scratchy 35mm prints and have not been restored in the slightest. Furthermore, although violence and some profanity have slipped through the cracks, nudity remains obscured. The pairing of Alan Gibson's The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974) and Milton Moses Ginsberg's The Werewolf of Washington (1973, previously released by Shout! Factory under the Movie Macabre banner) is a little random and by no means ideal if anybody intends to watch these movies for the first time. The main selling point behind this tag team, and all of the eOne B-horror double-headers, is the irreplaceable presence of Elvira.

Watching The Satanic Rites of Dracula, I can't help but see the influence of the great Peter Cushing, here as the peerless vampire killer (Lorrimar) Van Helsing, on Roddy McDowall's character from the original Fright Night, whose name was partly derived from Cushing, too. Mining that same nostalgic vein, Elvira is the final bastion of the horror host, her comforting combination of va-va-voom and Vaudeville something surprisingly sophisticated in this current age of reality television starlets and prefab personalities. Old-fashioned, yes, but precise in Peterson's handling, there's no getting around the fact that once Elvira goes off the air for the last time, there will never be another gorgeous ghoulie to supplant her. The search for the next Elvira has come and gone, and it really says something about Peterson's staying power that she, having rode the coattails of Maila "Vampira" Nurmi back in the day, is the last of her kind.

Throughout her host segments for Dracula, Elvira is bored stiff by the movie's slack pacing, which doesn't even find time for Christopher Lee's farewell appearance as the Count until a half-hour into the proceedings. She doesn't even bring up the most bizarre aspect of this Hammer Studios production in that Dracula has become an agent of espionage and an entrepeneur not unlike a Bond villain. After a Chinese occultist ritualistically revives the nefarious count, Dracula makes a power play in the name of Armageddon, commissioning the scientific return of the Black Death in time for the Sabbath of the Undead. Agents from Scotland Yard and the British Secret Service join forces with Van Helsing and his granddaughter Jessica (the beautiful Joanna Lumley, pre-Ab Fab) to discern why members of the London elite are engaged in the Dark Arts, although Van Helsing makes the ultimate discovery in an office building located on the site of Dracula's prior grave and owned by a mysterious figure known as D.D. Denham.

The vampire mythology here is slightly subverted by some spy movie elements, but gets overblown in regards to one major element. What I'm referring to is that The Satanic Rites of Dracula posits far too many convenient ways to kill a creature of the night. Forget about garlic, the cross, holy water, silver bullets, and wooden staked for a second. A Bible alone inflicts damage without even the mere notion of having faith. Cold, running water needs not be ordained by a minister to cause a cellar full of vampire brides to disintegrate en masse. A Hawthorn bush is also trotted out simply because it was used for Christ's thorny crown. The end result is that you can vanquish Dracula simply by pushing him into a shower or throwing stacks of old Gideon in his vicinity. Anyone can defend themselves given this knowledge, which makes the seductive threat of Dracula very impotent.

It's way too silly in spots, but Lee and Cushing are reliable anchors, and Joanna Lumley is striking enough to want to possess as your own nocturnal bride. They kept me involved even as Elvira bluffed her way out by signing glossy photos, completing Sudoku puzzles and reading the latest crypt-keeping magazine.

The Werewolf of Washington also tries to gussy up familiar supernatural tropes but this time in the name of political satire. Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) is a Washington reporter in Budapest who is appointed by telephone to become the president's Press Secretary. Trying to drive to the airport on a dark and foggy night, Jack swerves into a tree to avoid hitting a motorcyclist in Gypsy territory. As it turns out, the stranger is indeed a werewolf, and passes onto Jack the curse of the full moon just in time for his arrival to the White House. Jack cynically flushes a good luck charm down the toilet before a dinner party and duly mauls the alcoholic wife of a Supreme Court candidate overnight. The bigoted attorney general (Clifton "Sheriff Pepper" James) tries to pin this on a Black Panther and his girlfriend, but Jack ends up attacking them, too, although the woman is protected within a phone booth until help arrives.

The skeptical Jack who once confused the five-pointed star that is the Pentagram with the Pentagon is in fear that he is a lycanthrope. This leads to not one but two befuddling gags set in bathrooms, the first involving Jack trying to hide in a stall post-transformation as the President and one of his handlers pull on the door for longer than any man should. The second finds Jack arguing to his Naval psychiatrist friend the importance of the Pentagram embedded on his chest, which is met with a homophobic slur delivered in ADR. Afraid that he'll murder the president's daughter, whose clandestine romance with her resulted in his transfer to Europe, Jack is chained to a chair only to be set free at the worst possible moment, all because the President demands he hop a flight alongside the Prime Minister of China for a press conference.

Jack's transformations are handled via dissolves between various make-up stages, the classic method before the high-tech innovations of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, two more assured horror-comic crossbreeds. The supposed political humor is thicker than a slab of freshly-deceased venison, with broad puns like the president referring to the gutter during a bowling game between him and Jack, whose furried fingers get stuck inside his ball. Despite his background in editing, Milton Moses Ginsberg (gotta love that name) is less assured in staging suspense sequences, particularly a chase sequence around the Pentagon as well as the aforementioned hippie chick attack. The most amusing aspect of The Werewolf of Washington is that Jack's furried alter ego comes across more like a domesticated canine than a feral monster. Watch for the out-of-nowhere sequence where an underground dwarf scientist encounters the Wolf Man: not only does Jack lick his hand, he also sniffs around his hinder.

Elvira fares much better here than during The Satanic Rites of Dracula, rattling off a steady stream of jokes as she jockeys for a candidate position. And although nothing can match the uncanny brilliance of Tina Fey's classic impersonation, watching Elvira channel Sarah Palin does provoke a few titters. There's also more of her during the movie, which I neglected to mention earlier. In a caveat no doubt meant to remind viewers of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Elvira pops up on occassion at the bottom corners of the screen with a snarky comment. During Dracula, she chimes in early with a few zingers ("The Satanic Shampoo Commercial of Dracula," goes one retort to a close-up shot of a sacrifical blonde's wind-swept face) but is absent throughout the rest of the film, no doubt keeping with the indifferent attitude she displays during the interstitials. The Werewolf of Washington finds her more active within the film although luckily not as prominent in her riffs as one familiar with MST3k would expect.

The public domain status of both movies means that you're not going to get reference quality a/v specs, which is more in favor of the newly-produced sequences with Elvira, which are considerably more slick and colorful than the classic red couch introductions of her 1980s tenure. The biggest bummer here is in regards to special features, which are identical no matter which Movie Macabre DVD you scoop up. Cassandra Peterson probably has a few humorous things to say about these movies out-of-character, but we don't get that. Instead, find her in a behind-the-scenes short focusing exclusively on the opening sequence of Movie Macabre, which is familiar to the "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" intro but with more of a cast. Elvira turns up in a promotional photo shoot video as well as a music video called "Mistress of the Dark" by Ghoultown, whose B-roll footage is also presented here for posterity. There are finally some previews for other Movie Macabre releases and one more comical sucker punch aimed at Christine O'Donnell, which is the only bonus exclusive to this specific release.

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I grew up at the wrong time to have a firm grasp on Elvira's talents, which ultimately left me in the company of Joe Bob Briggs and TNT's MonsterVision throughout my adolescence. And if Elvira can make a return to syndication and DVD, then I demand we get our old buddy from Grapevine, Texas to make some belated encore appearances. If I had to pick my all-time favorite horror movie host, I'd have to go with Mr. Briggs purely out of nostalgia and appreciation. And that's ultimately the same feeling a lot of people will undergo now that the Mistress of the Dark has had the resurrection that many of us have been waiting for. And even at 60, Peterson/Elvira would, to quote a lyric from the album whose cover may or may not capture her at her showgirl peak, "make a dead man come."

That being said, I have to say that Katarina Leigh Waters has proven the most pleasant surprise of the trio of hostesses I've watched thus far. Maybe it's primarily my weakness for English women, but Waters feels more earthly and accessible for those who are not partial to concepts that more than often resulted in forced comedy (and yes, I even include Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its offshoots). A lot of the movies in Scorpion's line of titles are ones I've been itching to see, and Katarina's demure but exuberant attitude is just what I like in a horror hostess right now.

Maria Kanellis, meanwhile, is undoubtedly hot and more than game for the task of presenting something as oddball as Night of the Demon. But unlike Waters, it's plain to see that Maria is channeling some of Elvira's vivacious chi although the jokes in her segments tend to be duds. I want to see more of Code Red's titles and not go on a first impression, but between these three specific titles, the Night of the Demon one is more essential for the film itself than the experience of watching it with Maria.

The decision is tough, but I've got to get mine made: My favorite B-movie hostess, based solely on the evidence throughout these three discs is...

Katarina Leigh Waters!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"The potentially true story of the last best band" is what to expect from Gorman Bechard's Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements. The tagline alone kind of makes me wistful for the liner notes to the band's first album, which, like the aforementioned quoted tagline, is a mix of honesty and self-effacement.

I was driven to see this when Zia Records sponsored a screening as part of the Phoenix Film Festival's "Doc-tober Fest" on First Friday of October 2011. And much of this impulse was due to my own intimate familiarity with the music of The Replacements (aka The Placemats), who had been my favorite band during my high school years, starting in 2001. I had moved out of Mesa and into Apache Junction to be with my grandmother, as living with my father had started to escalate into a potential runaway situation. I left behind my friends, my big sister and a massive VHS collection of hundreds of movies, which would all be confiscated and officially lost to me due to further carelessness on behalf of my dad. My identity in regards to social, family and film connection all took a massive hit, and even pursuing my interests in drama and (for a spell) playing guitar, I spent much of my time in A.J. asking myself, "What the hell am I doing here?"

A mindset like that as well as a big catalog of mail-ordered CDs ultimately led me to discover The Replacements, and the first Replacements album I acquired was All For Nothing/Nothing For All, a double-disc breakdown of the years when the band themselves transitioned from homegrown cult darlings to major-label rockers. The Sire Records era from 1985 to 1990 produced four albums that told of a different evolutionary path than that of when they were signed to indie label Twin/Tone in their native Minneapolis. The band was originally composed of brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson (on guitar and bass, respectively) and drummer Chris Mars. This was when they called themselves Dogbreath. It took the repeated arrivals of a janitor named Paul Westerberg to complete the line-up that would be immortalized on stage and in studio.

Their first full-length album (1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash) and subsequent EP (Stink) thrashed against the restless, reckless experiences of youth. "Shiftless When Idle," "Fuck School" and "Takin' a Ride" (as in vehicular shenanigans not unlike "[takin'] a little ride in a hearse") were some of the more bracing highlights. Most American hardcore acts had political commentary (Dead Kennedys) or gritty slices of defiance and desperation (X, Black Flag). The Replacements were more concerned with what you're supposed to say when you've fallen hopelessly in love with the girl behind the counter (from "Customer": "Can I get change?/Where are the Twinkies?/What's on sale?"). Much of their appeal stemmed from these seriocomic blasts of angst and antsiness, as well as their live performances, fueled by beer, random cover songs and wavering levels of competency.

1983's Hootenanny and the next year's Let It Be saw The Replacements breaking away from punk rock's constraints and showed off Westerberg's increasing prowess with lyrics and composition. The latter remains one of the seminal LPs of the 1980s alternative scene, with the invigorating rockabilly of "I Will Dare," jokey rave-ups about tonsillectomies and erections, the grueling personal outrage with feeling "Unsatisfied" and saying intimate things to an "Answering Machine," and the empathetic classics "Androgynous" and "Sixteen Blue." Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau awarded it a rare A+ when it was released, leading to a full-fledged profile of the group in the publication.

The first exposure I got, though, were cherry-picked selections from the Sire Records releases Tim (1985), Pleased to Meet Me (1987), Don't Tell a Soul (1989), and All Shook Down (1990). Multiple shake-ups within the band (including the firing of Bob Stinson, who died of drug-related casualties in 1995), several stalled attempts at commercial success and Westerberg's prevalent personality all led to the dissolution of the group in 1991. However, since I didn't catch up with the independent Replacements era until a little bit later, this gave me enough time to develop fond recollections of the songs I heard on All for Nothing: the soulful, straight-ahead rockers with iconic titles such as "Can't Hardly Wait," "Left of the Dial," "Bastards of Young" and "Alex Chilton"; the heart-on-sleeve odes to wasting your life in the bar ("Here Comes a Regular"), yearning for affection ("Skyway," "Achin' to Be") and bemoaning lost love at the moment of your old flame's matrimony ("Nobody").

But I was only seven years old by the time The Replacements wrapped up their stint, so my associations are primarily with the music more than the antics. Everything I heard about the band afterwards sounded like myth, and who needs to look back when you've got a copy of Let It Be or Paul Westerberg's solo Stereo/Mono in your Walkman. Still, I was intrigued by the way the Replacements played around with the dog-and-pony show of being in the music business, sneaking unsuspected AM radio covers on paying crowds in a boozy haze, making a music video where a gigantic speaker is the focus of attention and appearing in gawky, rambunctious form on both Saturday Night Live, where they indulged in some Keith Moon-style destruction in the green room that got them on the show's official blacklist along with the likes of Elvis Costello, Fear and Sinead O'Connor, and the International Rock Awards(?).

The censored line, for the record, is "We're feelin' good from the pills we took," so the change of lyric at the end is a more deliberate "fuck you" statement worthy of what kept Costello, Fear and O'Connor off of SNL permanently. But Westerberg's introductory "What the hell are we doing here?" ultimately brings me full circle to my initial identification with The Replacements, and the reason I had to be there for the one-time screening of Color Me Obsessed.


Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements is an anecdotal survey of "the last best band," stripped completely of archaeology in regards to the use of actual footage or music from the band proper. Gorman Bechard, director of the adolescent video shelf fixture Psychos in Love, understands how mythological the band's underground cult status appears in hindsight, and thus conducts his documentary like a two-hour gospel filled with fervent testimony and opinion that reflects the full-fledged fandom of the interview participants.

The Replacements embodied a self-destructive dichotomy which worked mischievous wonders during their early years as pigeonholed punks but ultimately kept them from becoming the household name that many felt they deserved. Their first gig at famed New York City club CBGB's in 1983 resulted in derisive boos from classicist misfits when a test pressing of Hootenanny cued up and the titular ramshackle country goof that opened the album blared into the crowd. Playing Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, the same year, the local mohawk contingent (which included future indie troubador Jesse Malin) heckled away at the band so insistently that Paul Westerberg stayed at the end of the set to play drums for 30 minutes so that the punks could try their luck covering that ol' reliable "Louie Louie." But such a reckless attitude during their final years garnering MTV attention and touring with Tom Petty (who, of course, nicked the "rebel without a clue" lyric from the 'Mats' sole Hot 100 single, "I'll Be You") returned them to word-of-mouth obscurity.

20 years after their final show was bootlegged as "It Ain't Over Til the Fat Roadie Plays," The Replacements have been given the rock doc treatment thanks primarily to the funds raised on Color Me Obsessed gathers peers, producers, journalists, roadies, and recording artists from as far back as their garage-bound beginnings and as recent as members of Titus Andronicus and The Hold Steady. The notion that a band could embody someone's life experiences, captured on record by The Minutemen and preserved on pages by Michael Azerrad, is given room to flourish thanks to the array of commentary and war stories here. And die-hard fans should get a kick out of hearing the direct inspiration for both the tortured "Answering Machine" ("the Apocalypse Now of vocal performances" per musician Matthew Ryan) and the namesake of the band's Tommy Ramone-produced 1985 Sire debut, Tim.

The band's legendarily inconsistent live shows are the one aspect that really could've benefitted from genuine evidence, but the detailed, intimate storytelling brings imaginative light to several well-preserved memories. Actor Jeff Corbett remembers a basement gig that began late and regressed into a drunken argument which "ended like a Mike Tyson fight." There's another sadly hilarious recollection of a Trenton gig in 1985 that saw Bob Stinson preempting one show to "finish" a pinball game, trying to jump onstage to join his bandmates but getting kicked back down. The band's propensity for copious amounts of cover songs (they would play a bar of "Help Me, Rhonda" repeatedly in a fix) and guitarist Bob Stinson's wild costume choices (likening him to a "drunken art project") are also the source of good humor.

Spotlighting each of the individual members and albums in between the more eloquent stories, the documentary does get away with a few amusing touches to perk up the dominant focus on interviews. When the hand-stamped copies of the Stink EP are revealed as having been fashioned with a potato, there's an instructional video recreating the practice. In making a case for the band's underdog status in the rock pantheon, passages of text inform you of how many units each of the albums sold in both their initial and Rhino reissued formats, although they always ended up getting outsold by the millions in comparison to REO Speedwagon, Asia or Prince.

Color Me Obsessed progresses chronologically in regards to the band's history, from their Dogbreath/The Impediments origins to their extended goodbye touring throughout the late 1990s. That the nearly two-hour program feels so brisk is a testament to the captivating detail of many of the better comments and the scope of the compiled input. If I had to pick the moment that best sums up the spirit of Bechard's film, it's a brutally personal account of Minneapolis author Robert Voedisch stumbling upon a profile of the Replacements in Creem Magazine as a teenage loner insulated in farm life. His geometry teacher was also a 'Mats fan, and created a tape that had Hootenanny on one side and Let It Be on the other, albeit with one notable omission. Aside from having his musical identity challenged, young Rob eventually developed in his mind a fraternal relationship to Tommy Stinson to develop his self-confidence. Funny thing was that I felt a sort of kinship to Voedisch based on my own "Sixteen Blue" discovery of the Replacements.

The poignant, passionate confessions of Voedisch and many others are what ultimately makes this stand out from your typical clip-heavy rock documentary. With Color Me Obsessed, Bechard tells you all about the impact of The Replacements from the mouths of the true believers, which is a charming, classical manner of exposure. Those who haven't heard a single lick of the group's music would do wise to look to any fan at the screening for guidance into how to create the ultimate Replacements mix tape or CD. Although you can't go wrong with Let It Be, allow me to share with you the actual track listing for my own official Replacements sampler:

1. Talent Show (from Don't Tell a Soul, 1989)
2. I Will Dare (from Let It Be, 1984)
3. Alex Chilton (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
4. Left of the Dial (from Tim, 1985)
5. Takin' a Ride (from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1981)
6. Kiss Me on the Bus (from Tim, 1985)
7. Color Me Impressed (from Hootenanny, 1983)
8. Favorite Thing (from Let It Be, 1984)
9. Androgynous (from Let It Be, 1984)
10. I'll Be You (from Don't Tell a Soul, 1989)
11. Never Mind (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
12. Within Your Reach
13. Bastards of Young (from Tim, 1985)
14. Shiftless When Idle (from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1981)
15. Skyway (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
16. Achin' to Be (from Don't Tell a Soul, 1989)
17. Unsatisfied (from Let It Be, 1984)
18. Customer (from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1981)
19. Date to Church (1989 B-side of "I'll Be You," from the Don't Tell a Soul reissue, 2008)
20. Merry Go Round (from All Shook Down, 1991)
21. Kids Don't Follow (from the Stink EP, 1982)
22. If Only You Were Lonely (1981 B-side of "I'm in Trouble," from the Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash reissue, 2008)
23. Can't Hardly Wait (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
24. Here Comes a Regular (from Tim, 1985)
25. Answering Machine (from Let It Be, 1984)