Sunday, December 30, 2012

42nd Street Forever: Blu-Ray Edition/Trailer War

42ND STREET FOREVER (Blu-Ray Edition)
(unrated, 2012, Synapse Films, street date: May 8, 2012, SRP: $24.95)

(unrated, 2012, Drafthouse Films, street date: December 18, 2012, SRP: $14.99)


(WARNING: The following review makes mention of a couple of movies with politically incorrect titles that will remain uncensored, so reader discretion is advised)

People who tell me about how cheap gas and cigarettes were in their age are constantly insufferable, but the grindhouse/drive-in stories of old never wear out their welcome. Going downtown to urban-populated areas with a few fellow fish-out-of-water friends to see the latest kung fu melodrama or blaxploitation blast always has the rapturous hint of danger, deviance and solicitation. It feels like the opposite of white flight, where the lack of curiosity and knowledge divided culture. Perhaps living in the Mesa sticks as a teen gives you a yearning and romanticism that you choose to apply to whatever passion you hold dearly, and for me it was film. I hadn't the slightest clue what postmodernism or irony were the first time I saw Pieces on VHS, and good for me, as I guffawed, groaned and gasped my way through the type of movie that was meant to be seen in a pee-wee community of thrill-seekers. Ditto films like Dead-Alive and Sleepaway Camp that were huge hits among my particular circle of friends, the kind of communal roller coasters that are the stuff of fond memories.

Vintage exploitation cinema trailers were not that big of an obsession in my youth. You know, those cynically concentrated two-minute adrenalin injections that often resorted to sideshow huckster techniques to not just jolt you out of your comfort zone pre-feature presentation, but to make damn sure you came back for more. Sergei Eisenstein would likely pull a G.G. Allin if he had 10 minutes of free time just to see how far the theory of subconsciously manipulative montage came in the 1970s. The bludgeoning mix of sensationalism, hyperbole and voiceover made the cineplex feel like a carnival. And prolonged doses of these taunting, teasing attractions have become enough of a success on digital home video that two separate Blu-Ray trailer reels have surfaced in 2012 to turn living rooms across the country into full-on geek shows.

Charles Band was likely the forefather of the trailer compilation way back in 1981 with The Best of Sex and Violence, distributed by his Wizard Video label, and six years later came Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell. Aside from the unfortunate norm of full-frame cropping, both titles used progressively ludicrous comic relief wraparound segments in between segments, with the former anchored by John Carradine and the latter by the befuddling choice of ventriloquist Nick Pawlow and undead puppet Happy Goldsplat, a poor substitute for the comedic dream team of Bill "Chop Top" Moseley and Nubbins.

Nowadays, the DVD market for feature-length trailer comps is cornered by Synapse Films and their long-running 42nd Street Forever catalogue, the first two volumes of which help compose the series' inaugural HD presentation. Volume 5 was compiled by the founders of the Alamo Drafthouse, now their own independent distributor under the Drafthouse Films banner. You can consider their recent Trailer War a follow-up of sorts to their flagship previews package.

A whopping 89 theatrical trailers and 225 minutes long, 42nd Street Forever: The Blu-Ray Edition continues Synapse's tradition of paying tribute to B-movie history by clustering the various trailers based on subgenres. Talk about everything a growing boy needs. The set kicks off with the coolest cats with the most ebony of skin (Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly) only to take a hard ride into rape/revenge sagas (the peak being Abel Ferrara's devastating 1981 sophomore feature Ms. 45). The program loosens up with a playful tease or ten (College Girls and Street Girls! The Teacher and The Babysitter!) before getting right back into the seedy and sadistic (The Centerfold Girls, Invitation to Ruin) and then back to the innocently erotic (Fairytales). A lengthy middle section of vintage horror is succeeded by several choice porno titles, but then the two categories coalesce in time for a trio of particularly grueling mondo documentaries. Samurais, spies and bikers take us to the final stretch as the set concludes with three youth-oriented titles, including the same trailer that capped off the Volume 2 DVD.

The high points haven't changed since I recapped them the first time on Epinions. The iconic Fred Williamson appoints himself Sheriff Hammer of the Old West in the audaciously-titled Boss Nigger ("Part legend, part devil, all man!"), co-starring D'Urville Martin and the charismatically nasty William Smith, who also antagonizes a staff-wielding nightclub owner known as Black Samson (from the director of Superfly!) in the inaugural preview. The classic "Triple Lindy" from Volume 1 makes a welcome albeit scattered return with brown-eyed Scandinavian bombshell Christina Lindberg headlining They Call Her One Eye, The Depraved (yummy!) and Maid in Sweden. 1983's gory gem The Deadly Spawn remains one of my favorite homegrown alien invasion movies ever, but even that's trumped by the balls-out crimson sprays of 1980's Shogun Assassin, the American re-edit of the first two films in the great Japanese Lone Wolf & Cub series. If you ever wanted to see a banana-eating Mannix as 007, get a load of the Dino De Laurentiis-produced Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die! And then there's The Guy From Harlem, from which I quote my old review:

"This trailer can't be for real, as it plays like a parody of blaxploitation, what with its amateurishly staged gunfights, even worse fight choreography and a theme song that's a really poor Xerox of James Brown...I don't even think the makers of Black Dynamite know about [this]."

T&A is A-OK with the return appearances of Delinquent Schoolgirls (never mind the Stephen Stuckey-assisted rape scene set to ragtime piano and just focus on Sharon Kelly's tremendous rack), College Girls (a monochromatic nudie cutie starring softcore superstar Marsha Jordan), I, a Woman (introducing Essy Persson, yet another gorgeous Swede blessed with erotic persuasion), The Three Dimensions of Greta (see Leena Skoog, "the exciting 3-D girl," doing naked gymnastics!), and nearly every female star from The Centerfold Girls, namely the pleasantly reoccurring Jennifer Ashley and Tiffany Bolling. But don't get too infatuated with the latter babes, lest you wind up like Andrew Prine's memorably puritanical psychopath Clement Dunne ("Displaying your body is filth! You dirty the minds of others!").

1978's The Italian Stallion, adult film director Gail Palmer's shrewd re-issue of the much earlier Sly Stallone skin flick Party at Kitty and Stud's, does everything to capitalize on Stallone's rising star but only proves that, for someone who worked with John Holmes (featured here in the madcap preview for The Lollipop Girls in Hard Candy, propositioning every girl in row 12), Palmer is incredibly stiff in the worst way. Proceed instead to Panorama Blue, "the world's mightiest adult film" in 70mm super widescreen and four-track stereophonic sound as well as touting an all-star porn film cast including Holmes, Uschi Digard and Linda York.

Let's not forget to mention the many, many additional rousing highlights and occasionally riotous lowlights of the package: Rolling Thunder, The Born Losers, Skatetown U.S.A., Sugar Hill, Savage Sisters, The Green Slime, Van Nuys Blvd. ("We interrupt this theatre advertisement to bring you the total destruction of two automobiles!"), Devil's Nightmare, Death Drive (the Franco Nero/David Hess gem better known as Hitch-Hike), The Pom Pom Girls, Hell's Angels on Wheels, Teenage Mother ("means nine months of trouble!"), Super Fuzz, Rabid, The Pink Angels, The Last of the Secret Agents (the Allen & Rossi vehicle in which Nancy Sinatra sings the titular theme song and gets stripped down to her skivvies), Werewolves on Wheels, The Raiders of Atlantis, Deadly Blessing (the 1981 Wes Craven flick coming soon to BD from Scream! Factory), Wicked Wicked, The Undertaker and His Pals, the competing double bills of I Dismember Mama/The Blood Spattered Bride (two words: "upchuck cup") & Night of Bloody Terror/Women of Bloody Horror (boasting one of the most hilarious hard sells in schlock history), and the jaw-dropping, stomach-churning sights found in both The Crippled Master & Shocking Asia.

Exclusive to this set are some more bona fide treats. An interracial romance is beset by bigoted hostility from all sides in the spoiler-tastic advert for the audaciously-titled Honky ("a love story…of hate!"), a 1971 obscurity of note for both the luminous Brenda Sykes and a Quincy Jones soundtrack. 1983's Chained Heat has to be the alpha among women-in-prison movies based on the ensemble cast alone, and also credits I, a Woman director Mac Ahlberg as its cinematographer in the trailer. The Teasers Go to Paris, a frenzied sex comedy, is marketed by Group 1 International in their patented "this controversial movie will be presented without a single cut but here's all the best raciness anyway" fashion. Dr. Butcher, M.D. and The Grim Reaper, a pair of early 1980s Italian splatter films which split the lead actors from Lucio Fulci's Zombie, are best known by one well-accepted alternate title (Zombie Holocaust and Anthropophagus, respectively). Act of Vengeance (or Rape Squad), memorably featured in a Valentine's Day showcase for Brad Jones' The Cinema Snob, offers up a bevy of women seeking vengeance on a serial rapist in a hockey mask who has a kinky affection for "Jingle Bells." The bawdy stop motion adventure of serial skin-off Flesh Gordon, John Carpenter's debut film Dark Star, Pier Pasolini's controversial Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom (presented here in German export format), the wild Chinese caper SuperMan Chu, and the nudist colony exposé The Sun, The Place and the Girls invite further interest.

The sprawling, categorical nature of 42nd Street Forever: The Blu-Ray Edition means that there is a considerable lack of diversity compared to the proper DVD issues of the first two volumes. Those discs' expansive array of giallos, nunsploitation, peplum, and rubber suit monsters are nowhere to be found on this Blu-Ray, which I hope gets rectified on the Blu-Ray Edition's very own sequel. Also MIA are vehicles for the truly immortal likes of Peter Cushing (Corruption), Edwige Fenech (Creampuffs) and Adolfo Celi (Murders in the Rue Morgue). Furthermore, and it should go without saying, you may need a will of diamonds to withstand all the long stretches of admittedly sumptuous nudity (of every stripe here), chintzy splatter and those dubiously anthropological endurance tests known as the mondo. Even being familiar with many of the trailers beforehand didn't keep me from watching the entire package in self-appointed intervals.

No matter how you choose to schedule them in, this is a boundless treasure trove of smutty, nutty, bloody good fun. You'll be amazed by how wild even the most artful of trailers can be; I, a Woman comes on like a sober study of sensual awakening, but then has scantily clad Essy Persson getting thrown over someone's shoulder and getting spanked like a bastard stepchild. Prolific B-movie distributors such as New World, Crown International, AIP, Dimension, and Film Ventures International crop up, but notice major studios like Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM unleashing films as derivative and demented as anything produced in Italy and approved by Roger Corman. Take this BD as you will, but if you don't soil your seat in any way at any point during this three-hours-plus schlock party, you're already undead.

There's not really a wide berth of extras you can afford to a straightforward series of movie trailers, but just like the third and fourth DVD editions (Exploitation Explosion and Cooled by Refrigeration), there is a marathon audio commentary reuniting the savvy trio of Edwin Samuelson (AV Maniacs webmaster, occasional DVD commentary moderator), Michael Gingold (managing editor of Fangoria, sometime filmmaker and fellow DVD moderator) and Chris Poggiali (Shock Cinema writer, page master of The Temple of Schlock, also on Blogspot). Flashing back to the third volume alone, I distinctly recall their informative, inquisitive discussions of Blood Beach, The Life and Times of Xaviera Hollander and Enter the Ninja among others.

Even with a three-hour threshold that occasionally wears them down, especially in some gruelingly long previews for Ginger and College Girls, it's another keeper. The highly proficient Poggiali recounts most of the trivia and movie details throughout, with Samuelson going solo in his affection for Dark Star and Gingold naturally handling a lot of the horror titles. The jovial Fango scribe (listen to his introduction for Kinji Fukasaku's The Green Slime) delivers the set's best screening anecdotes, talking about his affectionately absurd experiences with both Teenage Mother (a tawdry Jerry Gross roadshow exhibition that purports to be educational about the trials of sex and pregnancy) and The Deadly Spawn (Gingold caught it in Times Square, where a huge display of John Dods' creature design led to a photo opportunity). The mondo section opens a few raw nerves for the men, a refreshing rebuke to the atypical "ain't it cool" hipster bravado. There's even a point where an irritated Samuelson stops the track dead for one particular film, incidentally not one of the mondos, which depicts forced coprophagia.

Oh well, I guess even fart contest over-enthusiasts have their limits.


By comparison to Mike, Eddie and Chris, Alamo Drafthouse programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson have very little in the way of scruples. One of the cruddiest trailers in their possession is for the 1979 Taiwanese chop socky effort Eunuch of the Western Palace (starring Lo Lieh from Five Fingers of Death), and in case you didn't know what a eunuch is, you get a pretty graphic visual definition right out of the gate. The film even shows the resulting surgical mess being cauterized, complete with sizzling flesh and screaming. Lars and Zack don't appear to gag or get offended in the slightest; on the contrary, such a nasty image is too good to step over in their quest to catalog the more tasteless and obscure cinematic surprises to have the fortune of resurfacing.

Trailer War runs closer to two hours in length with a sum total of 45 trailers, presented like 42nd Street Forever in an HD transfer sourced from authentic 35mm elements. The goal this time around is less contextual than Synapse's far-reaching assembly of titles from the golden era of exploitation films and more a constant communication of awestruck disbelief. A large percentage of the various movies assembled here could be midnight movies in the making for a generation who go to the cinema to mockingly embrace such amateur hour trainwreck totems of random audacity, petulant nihilism and misplaced intentions as The Room, Birdemic and Troll 2, which is a depressing state indeed for many who honestly can articulate the charm, subversion and sheer entertainment value found in much better B-movies such as Bad Taste, TerrorVision, and, of course, The Deadly Spawn.

The Drafthouse duo have done right by attempting to preserve 35mm prints of hard-to-see movies through an affiliate organization called the American Genre Film Archive. It is from this particular vault whence the trailers featured for this compilation come. Based on the evidence here, your curiosity as to how many of the movies are secured in their entirety is certainly aroused.

The set begins and ends with the two most rousing Whitman's samplers of weird, the first being Brian Trenchard-Smith's Stunt Rock (1978), a proudly plot-proof vehicle for both the ballsy Australian daredevil Grant Page, glimpsed in pre-recorded acts of life-risking valor, and the hair metal outfit Sorcery, whose stage show is defined by epic pyrotechnic battles between mystical wizard Merlin and the Devil. Truly "a death wish at 120 decibels!" The closer is 1989's Thunder Cops, a.k.a. Operation Pink Squad II, one of those spellbindingly supernatural and utterly schizoid Hong Kong free-for-alls in the proud tradition of Mr. Vampire. The shoot-out sequences alone are unbelievable, including one with the nonchalant murder of an innocent bystander who then suffers the kind of indignity worthy of any random sap in Paul Verhoeven film.

In between those two go-for-broke bookends, there's plenty of kitschy flotsam to wade through. Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) shames new wave and neo-rockabilly by offering a Xanadu-caliber vehicle for Pia Zadora, hedging its bets by tossing in a chainsaw-wielding loon (Michael Berryman) and Jermaine Jackson at the height of his solo success. David Carradine goes kill crazy as a villainous Marine in Animal Protector (1988), which is marketed as an over-the-top Cannon-style action bonanza, which belies the fact that it was supposed to express genuine interest in animal rights. The Mutations (1974), starring a probably squandered Donald Pleasance, is like a sad cross-pollination between Island of Lost Souls and Freaks. 80-year-old vaudeville legend Moms Mabley appears for the first and last time on the big screen in Amazing Grace (1974). A pre-West Side Story Rita Moreno gets caught up in another race war in Lola's Mistake (1960), a more promiscuous recut of the straight delinquency drama Black Rebels (sure enough, the trailer's kooky/sexy highlight was also a deliberate insert on part of producer William Rowland). And who will ever forget Partners (1982), a broad comic update of Crusing from the screenwriter of La Cage Aux Folles that mismatches straight Ryan O'Neal with queenie William Hurt?!

To counter the proto-Chuck and Larry antics of Partners, there's a thriller called Amuck! (1971) with Barbara Bouchet as an active lesbian under the nefarious employ of Farley Granger. Just like the Teasers Go to Paris ad from the prior BD, this Group 1 release offers up copious nudity with a few "cut" card inserts and haughty narration suggesting the film will be shown unexpurgated; better still, the trailer concludes with some contrived testimonials from "audience members" placed in front of a poster for an entirely different movie.

A bizarre Mexican revenge film titled Con el Odio en el Piel (1988) is littered with laughable fashions and brutish misogyny. The horror flicks Don't Answer the Phone (1980), The Scaremaker (or Girls Nite Out, 1982) and Alan Ormsby's classic Deranged (1974) offer further evidence that sometimes it's hard to be a woman. And then there are the Women in Cell Block 7 (1973), the first Italian blast of caged heat where the prisoners are equally under threat from not just nympho wardens and conniving cellmates, but also random Spanish subtitles. Equally lost in translation is a French-dubbed trailer for the gonzo Maniac Cop 2 (1990), where the foreign tongues couldn't sound more bored reading over scenery-chewing work from Robert Davi and Leo Rossi.

Nilsen and Carlson lean on Ozploitation twice more with Brian Trenchard-Smith's The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and Dead End Drive-In (1986), and they can't help but toss in a pair of woeful Joe Don Baker action vehicles in Golden Needles (1974) and the notorious Mitchell (1975). But does anybody really need to see the advert for the easily obtainable (thanks to Shout! Factory) Starcrash (1978) again? I never thought I'd say this about a preview that features Caroline Munro in leather lingerie and tons of blatant Star Wars nods, but since it's already on the 42nd Street Forever BD and Stephen Romano's Shock Festival, let's give it a rest.

Still, they cover a lot of the same bases as the 42nd Street Forever BD in terms of representing the irrepressible thrills of blaxploitation (Black Samurai, 1977), kung fu (The Tongfather, 1974), science fiction (Inframan, 1975), crime-oriented action (Big Guns, 1973), handicapped fighters (Mr. No Legs, 1979), and sexy comedies (The Beach Girls, 1982). Trailer War doesn't quite represent every category as exhaustively but succinctly as what Synapse's titles offer, including the Alamo's own expertly-selected fifth volume (seriously, why isn't The Secret of Magic Island not out on DVD?), but when the set hits its sporadic strides (the 1984 Charlie Band anthology film The Dungeonmaster, more of the mighty Sonna Chiba in 1974's Sister Street Fighter), you might find yourself saying "They don't make ‘em like they used to."

And this time, you'll be right on the money.


Trailer War
42nd Street Forever

Very little is to be said about the 1080p, 1:78:1 aspect ratio-friendly transfers for both 42nd Street Forever and Trailer War. By comparison, though, the Drafthouse disc has the more erratic leaps in quality versus Synapse, primarily because the trailers for Trailer War haven't undergone any major remastering. Compare the presentations of Starcrash from both discs like I did and you'll notice the difference; the Drafthouse disc is grungier and more riddled with age defects (although it does have more information, rendering it closer to 1.85:1), while the Synapse disc cleans house without sacrificing the authentic 35mm projection feel. The Synapse disc also has the edge in terms of crisper HD detail on faces, flesh tones and colors, especially in the preview for Hard Candy of all titles, where circus peanuts and Playmate protuberances alike boast eye-popping clarity. Drafthouse's sicklier hues and softer image are no doubt the result of neglect, but at least there's a consistency in the resolution scanning and nary a jarring frame skip to be found.

Trailer War sports a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 track at 192 kbps, and once again you just have to accept it on faith that this the best possible option considering the trailer's urchin-like mistreatment. Distortion levels vary with each trailer, with some boasting incredibly harsh reverb and flat fidelity. The snaps, crackles and pops are to be expected, but even the ones that naturally should have stereo separation feel like mono. There are no subtitles for any of the dubbed trailers, so good luck to you in parsing out the dialogue from Con el Odio en el Piel. The Synapse team have no such problems, as their DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is well-balanced and keeps the roughness of the varying aural treatments at bay.

All you get from Synapse's disc is the previously mentioned, above-average commentary with Mike, Chris and Eddie, whilst Trailer War offers up a feature-length alternate track hosted by Lars and Zack plus an assortment of minor bonuses. The Drafthouse duo are more scene-specific than the Synapse trio, whose interest for Ms. 45 carried over all the way into the trailer for They Call Her One Eye. However fun and fascinating their observations can be, Zack and Lars are less concrete for the most part in trying to place context and trivia to their titles. The best anecdotes tend to be relayed stories from screenings, friends and past experiences, whether it's the late Welcome Home, Brother Charles and Penitentiary director Jamaa Fanaka's graduation from South Central thug to film school student, the mystery behind Al Adamson's death or Zack's discovery of a used Starcrash VHS in an Augusta, GA pawn shop. At no point do they mention the MST3k team's immortal discovery of Mitchell, which is kind of commendable, but at no point do they recommend the viewer take the giddy Ozploitation crash course that is Not Quite Hollywood!, which covers a lot of the trivia for The Man from Hong Kong that Lars and Zack seemingly mumble through.

Speaking of which, Machete Maidens Unleashed! interview subject and Trailers from Hell creator Joe Dante appears in a 13-minute interview which once again reaches back to Dante's years editing film trailers at New World, discussing the many sleights of hand and contradictions in his job. There's nothing revelatory here for any hardcore genre fans who own Piranha or the Mark Hartley doc, but Dante is always a welcome presence and sincere in his appreciation for the genre. Lars Nilsen goes takes us "Behind the Scenes at AGFA" in a 4:30 piece that succinctly states the organization's preservationist manifesto and but will hopefully go a little deeper in future Trailer War installments than just one wing. A theatrical trailer for this compilation of theatrical trailers(!) is included alongside previews for the rest of the Drafthouse Films catalog, including the Zack Carlson-championed cheese of Miami Connection (1987) and Ted Kotcheff's 1971 Aussie cinema milestone Wake in Fright. All of the extras are presented in 1080i HD, plus there's a hidden extra in 1080p that raincoat devotees will have a ball or two with.

Movie grades: 4.5/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 3.5/5 (Trailer War).
Video grades: 4/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 2.5/5 (Trailer War).
Audio grades: 4/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 2/5 (Trailer War).
Extras grades: 4/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 3.5/5 (Trailer War).
Final grades: 4.5/5 (42nd Street Forever) and 3.5/5 (Trailer War).

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