Wednesday, November 16, 2011


BD: INTRUDER (Unrated; 88 minutes; 1988; Synapse Films; street date: December 13, 2011; SRP: $29.95)

PREFACE: I received the Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack of Intruder just recently having ordered it online via Synapse Films' official site. They shipped it out early, hence I've decided to provide a professional if wholly independent review of the movie and product itself. Synapse's special edition combo pack of Intruder will be officially released on December 13, 2011. The screencaps provided are sourced from the standard DVD copy due to technological limiations and in no way reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray, which I will elaborate on in due time. My deepest respects and thanks to Don May Jr., Jerry Chandler and the other fine folks at Synapse for putting together yet another top-tier HD release of a vintage genre film that I think might be the best they've done yet. Even if my review of the film isn't as great of a rave as I would've liked it to be, may this entertain and inform you in equal proportion. And thanks for reading this review, brave surfer, and enjoy!

"And here comes fucking Parker, walking down Nine Mile, swinging the head by the hair in one hand and his hamburger in the other and he's STLL EATING IT!" - Bill Roberts (Danny Hicks), from

Scott Spiegel, alongside Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, could be considered The Three Stooges, Michigan chapter. All of them were high school friends who shared the same passion for filmmaking that ultimately propelled them to their respective careers as iconic directors, producers and actors in the realm of B-horror. During the early 1980s, they were impressionable young men with Super 8mm cameras making movies out of whatever their feverish imaginations could conjure. By the decade’s end, they had become synonymous with the Deadite spawn of the “Spam in a cabin” subgenre known as the Evil Dead trilogy. “Fake Shemp” Spiegel co-wrote the hyperactive 1987 sequel to Raimi’s splat-stick cheapie, which led to him finally expanding one of his old short film ideas into a full-fledged feature.

Enter Lawrence Bender, a frustrated dancer who opted to break into the movie industry as an actor but would settle for a prolific career as Quentin Tarantino’s co-conspirator at A Band Apart (credit Spiegel for introducing the two of them). Bender had the 100 grand budget to support Spiegel’s story idea about a grocery store slasher, one which had previously achieved fruition as a now-lost 20-minute DIY horror short called "Night Crew." Filmed at a defunct supermarket in Bell, California, the proper "Night Crew" movie, known forever now as Intruder, allowed for Spiegel to incorporate long-time friends and colleagues, including Sam Raimi and the KNB make-up effects team, into the fold of his 35mm debut.

There’s a grue-fright special happening at Walnut Lake Market in the wake of the evening shift employees being told by joint owners Danny (Eugene Glazer: Dollman, Joy of Sex) and Bill (Danny Hicks: Evil Dead II, The Demolitionist) that the independently-owned palace of produce is going out of business. The checkout, stock and food clerks are already the equivalent of dead meat from an employment standpoint by the time they start getting systematically halved-off by a mad killer. The prime suspect would appear to be the creepy ex-boyfriend of cashier Jennifer (Elizabeth Cox: Night of the Creeps, The Wraith), a leather-clad brooder named Craig (David Byrnes) whose drug addiction got in the way of their romance and who was sentenced to a year’s prison term for inadvertently(?) killing a man upon Jennifer’s decision to break up. Earlier that night, another dispute naturally erupts into a row and the persistent Craig, unable to reconcile with Jennifer, is forced out of the store and brought to the attention of the police.

Is Craig really the killer? Maybe it’s somebody even more traditionally insane, the kind of fruitcake best exemplified in the story told by co-owner Bill Roberts about a firefighter at the scene of an accident who retrieves a decapitated head whilst nonchalantly eating a burger. No matter who’s behind the closing time carnage, the Walnut Lake Market staff are getting chopped till they drop.

Intruder was originally released April 19, 1989, but only on videocassette and after Paramount purchased the movie after making a deal with executive producer Charles Band during his Phantom Productions transitional phase between selling Empire Pictures and starting up Full Moon Entertainment. There was never a theatrical run for Intruder, which feels like a stack against Spiegel. Furthermore, after the MPAA-mandated cuts were made to deliver the film with an R rating, Paramount decided against releasing an unrated version of the movie and simply let loose the censored version on the market. A month prior to the film’s VHS release, Fangoria Magazine offshoot Gorezone devoted an article and front cover to the film which contained lurid stills from some of the more juicy FX work. Filmmaker Vincent Pereira was particularly offended by this misleading chain of events, and the new Synapse Blu-Ray/DVD combo includes an interesting anecdote about an angry but fairly-written letter of his that prompted an interesting response from an unlikely source.

Bootlegged copies of an uncut version purchased from underground cult movie dealers had to suffice for the longest time. Then in August of 2005, Band’s Wizard Entertainment distributed the uncut version for the first time on Region 1 NTSC DVD. Although not the special edition bonanza many hoped for, there was justice in that the Director’s Cut had received an excruciatingly belated but legit release. Intruder’s greatest claim to fame other than its Evil Dead alumni was that it was the first credited joint collaboration for Robert Kurtzman, Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, three make-up artists who just worked together under Mark Shostrom on Evil Dead II before launching their own business enterprise as KNB. Spiegel’s movie was their demo reel, delivering several show-stopping set pieces of splatter such as a trash compactor head-crushing, a geyser-spurting knife to the abdomen and, in a moment carried over from the original "Night Crew" 8mm short, a band saw slicing open one poor sucker’s noggin. Watch the outtakes to see which of Spiegel’s famous friends ended up doing the gag in its infancy.

Intruder was the end of an era in regards to the slasher film, which was the standard for horror early in the 1980s before it turned into the province of shot-on-video cheapies and the deluge of Jason/Freddy/Michael sequels. Spiegel’s movie, much like The Evil Dead, is as basic as a story can get: a psycho killer preys on the unlucky inhabitants of an isolated location, in this case a soon-to-be-defunct supermarket. The mostly young assortment of graveyard workers do their jobs with correlative boredom. Since there are only two women on the staff, and since one’s already hitched, they’re more likely to snack on a bag of five finger-discounted cookies to break up the monotony. The one with the boyfriend is Linda (Renée Estevez: Sleepaway Camp II, Deadfall), whereas courtly Dave (Billy Marti) appears to be Jennifer’s newest squeeze. On the bachelor’s team are stoner dude Bub (future filmmaker Burr Steers: Igby Goes Down, the Zac Efron vehicles 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud), beer cooler cast-off Tim (Craig Stark: Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, 2001 Maniacs) and the brothers Raimi themselves, Sam and Ted, as, respectively, Randy the Butcher and Produce Joe, the later in a consistent state of Walkman-induced oblivion.

Much like Friday the 13th, there appears to be the notion that the characters on the chopping block exist in a vacuous state of existence that brings out a certain ignorance to the danger in front of them. Never mind the fact that a clearly disturbed and obsessed ex-convict is roaming around the store having already assaulted Jennifer and the rest of the night crew. Sam Raimi, in an amusing display of karmic retribution for his constant Bruce Campbell abuse, stumbles upon Craig with naïve inquisition and gets thrown against a Pepsi display. This sets the stage for the actual murders, which are disregarded in one (in)advertent way or another. A rolling can of beer, the banging on a steel vent cover and the discordant sounds of a loudspeaker as one victim tries to cry out for help are all shrugged off. Both Bub’s dimwitted apathy and Joe’s blissful ignorance are used against them at the moment they’re dispatched.

Even the heroine Jennifer is not immune in one unintentionally shoddy scene where Craig, having smacked Jennifer across the face to the extent where she has recurring nosebleeds, spies on her changing shirts in a dingy basement bathroom. Bill goes out to investigate a possible disturbance and gets into a heated fight with Craig upon discovery, but Jennifer pays no mind. She then she confides to Dave that Craig was indeed peeping in on her (Note: The work print version shows a reaction shot of Jennifer screaming in terror whilst in her bra, as do the original trailers). By the time of the killer’s reveal, which results in a performance marked by Betsy Palmer-worthy hysteria, a red herring explains his innocence in a way that makes no sense in terms of continuity.

Spiegel’s restless eye for eccentric camera angles, no doubt the product of Sam Raimi’s influence, is rather spotty. I’ve been feeling torn between respecting Spiegel’s imaginative excesses and wishing Sam would’ve told him to reign it in. POV shots abound from within a slew of inanimate objects, from shopping carts to trash cans to buckets and even, I kid you not, a rotary phone. At one point, the camera stands in for a doorknob so that it rotates in sync with the knob’s turning. Some whole sequences are defined solely by Spiegel’s odd stylings, such as Bub’s conversation with Linda about Craig’s sordid past filmed both overhead and upside down, or a stalking scene where the murderer’s face is grotesquely stretched out by the reflection from a glass jar. The difference between Spiegel and Raimi is that the latter had a better understanding of when to deploy such tricks to accentuate the black comedy and tension rather than just prove deliberately cool. The hit-or-miss results either provide some effective creepiness, a hearty laugh (the broom wipe transition is a particular hoot) or prove too self-consciously hip. But there’s no denying his madcap glee, which serves to lighten the movie up instead of bogging it down.

As evidenced by this Director’s Cut, the brightest stars of the show, more so than any of the actors save for the mercurial Danny Hicks, are Kurtzman, Berger and Nicotero. There is no shortage of craft to the way in which this troika of gore merchants set about staging these Grand Guignol murders, a few of which are reminiscent of some of the more outlandish kills from exploitation history. The meat hook impalement of Sam Raimi’s butcher is more outlandishly gruesome than what happened to Terri McMinn in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And whilst Joe D’Amato’s 1981 rarity Absurd first provided the sick image of a table saw slicing through someone’s skull, KNB push it to a greater extreme by having it cut through the victim’s head sideways so that half of it is cleanly separated. But it’s not all squeamish-baiting viciousness, as Spiegel is canny enough to have blood and beer spew out in equal measure when a victim is stabbed against a stack of generic brew, or to treat a butcher’s knife like a boomerang when the psycho gets punctured.

Intruder begins with a walk-on cameo by Emil Sitka which Three Stooges aficionados will gobble up thanks to the callback to his memorable line from the Shemp-era short Brideless Groom. The contrasting pairs of policemen who briefly arrive to inspect the complaints at Walnut Lake Market are filled in by guest appearances, first by Green Acres stars Tom Lester and Alvy Moore and later by Bruce Campbell and Lawrence Bender. Spiegel himself gets offed onscreen as the bread vendor.

Whatever elements used for the uncensored cut of Intruder have been given a 2K restoration job for Synapse Films’ new AVC-encoded Blu-Ray transfer, framed here in 1.78:1 widescreen for what appears to be the very first recorded time. The movie boasts an even greater attention to atmosphere and location thanks to the crisper, color-timed appearance. Fernando Argüelles’ lively cinematography, full of peering blue light and consistently creepy levels of darkness, has never looked more evocative. The increased detail reveals just how rundown the shooting location was, especially in some of the more contained areas away from the main floor. Flesh tones, costumes and the various packaged goods are impressively clean and well-saturated. Since it was filmed with 35mm short ends, several shots are considerably grainy or hazy, yet there appears to be no major issues with dirt, haloes and artifacts. The DVD copy looks just as revelatory despite not being of the highest resolution, meaning that all of the prior import versions and trade copies are now officially obsolete.

The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix is in the original English mono. Despite their suspicious origin as library materials, the various electronic music cues sound deep and robust with the lossless encoding. Characters talk and scream with equal clarity across the front channels, although some sound effects came across as fairly muted. But those exceptions are not foley-related, otherwise the band saw and loudspeakers shriek loud and proud. No subtitles or closed captions are provided, nor any alternate language dubs.

“Good grief!” is Scott Spiegel’s catchphrase throughout the feature-length audio commentary which reunites him with producer Lawrence Bender. Arguably the most animated of the four participants on the classic Evil Dead II yakker (“You wanna play house? You’ll be the screen door and I’ll slam you all night long!”), Spiegel’s infectious sense of humor served him well because most of the production specifics came from Raimi and Campbell‘s recollections. Spiegel and Bender are extremely casual in their rapport together on this track, which is worth it more for the crazy genial camaraderie and back-and-forth memories of driving around L.A. and kicking up Mt. Baldy than for gleaning any prolonged insight on the making of the film. Several solid anecdotes slip through, primarily how the Coen Brothers came to recycle the “Nine Mile Parker” story in the opening of Raising Arizona. We also get an understanding of how urban an environment Bell, California was and some of the quirks that came from shooting in an actual market.

The commentary is fun, but those looking for something meatier can proceed directly to the brand-new featurette Slashed Prices: The Making of Intruder, which lasts 38 minutes and is presented in HD as are virtually all of the extras (and even the video-sourced footage have an AVC encode and DTS audio). Red Shirt Pictures have conducted new interviews with Spiegel, Bender, Bruce Campbell, Charles Band, Fernando Argüelles, Elizabeth Cox, Danny Hicks, Burr Steers, Craig Stark, Ted Raimi, and all three of the KNB main men. What we get here is a strikingly comprehensive look back at the production from genesis to desecration. It’s a shame Cox, Bender’s girlfriend at the time of filming, has retired from acting as she ably demonstrates several specific types of screams she patented during the movie. But the real delight is to hear from Danny Hicks, who pulled an Argento on the lead actress at one point at the dog end of a long day.

I previously mentioned The Slashing of Intruder (3:26), the Vincent Pereira interview pertaining to one fan’s perspective on the initial censored version being foisted upon him in video stores. Sourced from a time-coded rough cut of Intruder is a ten-minute montage of extended murder sequences, which includes an alternate filming of Sam Raimi’s demise as well as various other bloody frames not present in the proper Director’s Cut. Spiegel’s 8mm outtakes from the original "Night Crew" short (6:47) are edited together and graced with music and effects to provide viewers with an abbreviated take on how the missing project plays out. Spiegel’s personal archives also bestows on us eleven minutes worth of original cast audition footage. All of the participants read for the parts that they eventually received (Hicks, Steers, Billy Marti, Eugene Glazer), although both Elizabeth Cox and Renée Estevez are seen auditioning for the part of Jennifer.

Greg Nicotero provides about 30 vintage behind-the-scenes still photos which are presented in a motion gallery lasting four minutes. Finally, the set concludes with both the original theatrical trailer for Intruder in high-definition widescreen as well as a 4:3 video trailer under the title "Night Crew: The Final Checkout," each lasting 1:19. All of the extras can be found on either the Blu-Ray or standard DVD copies, and housed within the blue plastic case is a 2012 Synapse Films product catalogue which boasts upcoming releases of the Spiegel-produced Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except, the James Glickenhaus/Christopher Walken classic McBain, several Hammer Films-distributed BD/DVD combo packs, and Andreas Schnaas’ Violent Shit series.

Synapse have thrown in a bonus for those first 500 customers who pre-order the title directly from their site: a DVD-R containing the full 89-minute work print version of Intruder while it was still known as "Night Crew." I’ve got #45, so I’m assuming there’s still 100 or so more copies to spread around. There’s no time code like in the extended murder collection found on the special edition, but the full frame VHS quality definitely lets you know this was unfinished if the lack of music and sporadic aural gaps didn’t clue you in. Also, several dialogue scenes play slightly longer and there are many noticeable differences in scene assembly, from the lack of inserts to the reliance on montage instead of cross-cutting apparent in both the opening scene and the first official murder, which is markedly different from the inaugural kill in the final cut. This blueprint edit is a collector's item that to my knowledge may have been released as a bootleg, but definitely rewards the option to purchase the package directly through the distributor's official store.

If not what I would consider the last great slasher movie of the 1980s, Intruder is certainly the most entertaining of all the late-period chopping sprees. Scott Spiegel goes overboard in trying to capture the audacious visual perspectives and black-and-red comedy of his craftier friends/peers. Luckily, such indulgences allowed me to recognize genuine moments of inspired cheekiness that are more playful than most of the facetiously arch hybrids of gore and one-liners that would rule the 1990s. Couple the more successful over-the-top jokes with the sterling pre-KNB make-up effects, and Intruder, which officially streets on December 13, belongs in any gorehound’s stocking. The wonderfully restored HD video quality and copious bonus features are but plasma-flavored icing and flesh-shaved sprinkles on this gingerbread cookie.

Movie grade: 3.5/5.
Video grade: 4.5/5.
Audio grade: 3.5/5.
Extras grade: 4.5/5, but a full five if you opt for the bonus work print.
Final grade: 4/5.

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