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House: Two Stories (Blu-ray)

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House

House Two StoriesStarring William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Arye Gross, Jonathan Stark, Royal Dano

Directed by Steve Miner, Ethan Wiley

Distributed by Arrow Video


The names of director Steve Miner and producer Sean S. Cunningham were hot on the lips of horror fans in the early ‘80s, when the two of them (separately) oversaw the first three entries in the Friday the 13th series (Cunningham responsible for the first as producer/director, Miner helmed the following two sequels). A few years later, the two would finally work together – along with writer Fred Dekker (who gets a story credit) – on a horror film with a humorous twist, House (1986). Haunted house pictures were old hat by this point, but few had been made with a bent toward comedy, and House very much plays like a comic book come to life. Due to its success, only one proper sequel was produced, House II: The Second Story (1987), before the series (of sorts) went off the rails and saw two more semi-official entries – neither of which was well-received and, confusingly, weren’t marketed or produced as traditional sequels. In fact, House III: The Horror Show (1989) was marketed as just The Horror Show in the U.S., yet House IV (1992) was released direct-to-video without ever having an official preceding sequel on shelves. Even more confusingly, House II and The Horror Show are known as La Casa 6 and La Casa 7, respectively, in the insane ad hoc Italian series of loosely connected haunt flicks.

Roger Cobb (William Katt) is a tormented man whose life has been a series of misfortunes. He and his now-ex-wife, Sandy (Kay Lenz), separated after losing their only child, Jimmy (Erik and Mark Silver), who vanished without a trace. He suffers from recurring nightmares brought on by his time in Vietnam. He’s a writer caught with writer’s block. And now his beloved aunt just went and hung herself. Despite all this, the guy is actually in pretty good spirits. After his aunt’s funeral, Roger decides to keep her old Victorian home instead of selling the place, figuring it would be a comfortable, quiet place to get some writing done. Much to the disdain of his publisher and fans, Roger’s next novel isn’t going to be a fictional horror tale bur, rather, a retelling of his horrific time spent in Vietnam. And per his agent, “Nobody wants to read about Vietnam!”

Not long after settling in, Roger begins to experience strange phenomena. He sees things that aren’t there – or are they? A seemingly benign closet appears to be the portal to some otherworldly dimension, with unorthodox creatures attacking him randomly. His neighbor (and Roger Cobb fanboy) Harold (George Wendt), tries to offer some assistance but only winds up thinking Roger is a bullets short of a full clip. Sleep doesn’t offer any respite either, as Roger is tormented by visions of Vietnam and the slowly-revealed story of fellow soldier, “Big” Ben (Richard Moll), who died there years ago. Recognizing the house is capable of disturbing with him both psychologically and physically, Roger sets out to uncover its secrets and possibly even find the child he lost so many years ago. But an old foe stands in the way of redemption…

Above all else, this movie is just big time fun. Roger has seen a lot of true tragedy in his life, yet the film never feels heavy because of these events. A good part of that has to do with William Katt’s performance, which while fitting for the tone of this film never quite shows him coming across as a truly troubled man. Given his family history I’d expect the actual Roger Cobb to be damn near suicidal. Miner shot House in a comic-come-to-life style that features bold splashes of color, over-the-top creatures, and hearty doses of humor, nearly all of which come courtesy of George Wendt. The moment when he first meets Roger and unwittingly trash talks his dead aunt still kills me, even after multiple viewings.

Because the film is such a damn good time, and the creature FX work is a clear highlight, it can be easy to overlook the fact that many of the story elements never quite gel. The scripting feels sloppy at times, with tenuously linked elements coming together because they need to and not organically. It’s a testament to how well the filmmakers have done their job because, as a fan, these problems never really mattered much to me.

House II: The Second Story, on the other hand, is a film that is trying maybe a bit too hard to match or top the first entry, failing spectacularly in its admirable quest. Jesse (Arye Gross) and his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) have just moved into an old stone mansion that has been in Jesse’s family for generations. Not long after Jesse’s goofball buddy, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), joins them with his wannabe recording artist girlfriend, Lana (Amy Yasbeck). 25 years earlier, Jesse’s parents were murdered in this mansion on the night he was given away to an adoptive couple. Jesse decides to go through old family belongings and comes across a photo of his great-great-grandfather, also named Jesse (Royal Dano). In the photo the elder Jesse is holding a crystal skull as an associate, Slim (Dean Cleverdon), looks on. Assuming the skull must be buried with his grandpappy (because why not?), Jesse and Charlie dig up the old timer and find his corpse re-animated and spry as ever. “Gramps” has the skull alright, and it’s keeping him alive, though it hasn’t restored his body to its former glory as he thought.

After a series of amusing fish-out-of-water moments, Gramps explains he and Slim had a disagreement over the skull all those years ago and he shot his former friend, leaving him for dead in the desert. Furthermore, Gramps explains the old family homestead is actually a Mayan temple with rooms capable of transporting anyone back through time & space. During a Halloween party, a caveman warrior steals the skull and leads Jesse & Charlie on an adventure through a dinosaur kingdom. Later, another room is revealed when Bill (John Ratzenberger) arrives to do some wiring work and accidentally rips open a wall to reveal an ancient sacrificial chamber. Luckily Bill, a part-time adventurer, brought his sword for moments like this. Eventually Slim makes an appearance and the final showdown for the crystal skull is underway.

This is a goofy, dumb movie with its heart in the right place but the story just isn’t there. There are, however, many elements that prevent this from being an insufferable sequel. Royal Dano is the man-o, adding so much charm and charisma and heartbreak to his role as the original Jesse. He’s got a voice that is instantly recognizable and it brings so much to his character and the film as a whole. John Ratzenberger really steals his scenes as Bill, the electrician who treats time portals like they’re commonplace; his small role in integral in supporting the second act. And then there is creature FX designer Chris Walas, whose lifelike creations add unexpected variety to a haunted house movie. Who would’ve ever guessed dinosaurs would make an appearance here? This one definitely isn’t as good as the original but it works as a completely comedic sequel… which is a tad surprising given the opening scene is so grim.

For local So Cal readers: both houses from their respective films are within the vicinity of L.A., with the impressive estate from the sequel located just down the road from the iconic Staples Center. It’s tough to watch the film and not think about where it’s really located.

So, you’re a fan of this series and you want to own this set – and rightfully so, because Arrow Video has done a tremendous job. But are you also a completist? Because just across the pond, Arrow U.K. has issued a beautiful box set containing ALL four House films… and rumor has it they “accidentally” made all four films region-free. And considering the price shipped to the U.S. is nearly the same as the smaller set here, well, seems like an easy choice given those options.

Both House and House II are presented with a new 2K scan of their interpositive with a 1.85:1 1080p image, the results of which likely max out the picture potential for each. House looks the best, with a stable and clean image that features accurate color reproduction, natural (though occasionally chunky during effect shots) grain, and decent fine detail when close-ups occur. There is a bit of a framing issue that seems to expose more of the left side than necessary (at one point a crew member can be seen) but, honestly, I’m not one to nitpick releases to death like some collectors. It does not warrant a recall or boycott. House II is in the same boat (minus the framing thing), although my virtue of being a couple years newer the picture does seem to handle in a few areas ever-so-slightly better than the first. To most eyes, my own included, the images here are both pleasing and nearly identical. Fans will no doubt be happy with these clear upgrades over DVD.

House gets a trio of audio options – English LPCM mono, 2.0 stereo, or a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track. The 5.1 track offers up a little more breathing room for the soundfield and composer Harry Manfredini’s score (which is, for better or worse, unmistakably his work), though the 2.0 stereo option works just as well if you go that route. House II receives an English LPCM 2.0 dual mono track or a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track. As with the first film, either track gets the job done but the multi-channel does space effects and score out a bit better. Subtitles are included in English SDH on both films.

Both films are stacked with bonus features, including documentaries, commentary tracks, featurettes, and promotional materials.

House Bonus Features:

An audio commentary with “the cast & crew” features Ethan Wiley, William Katt, Sean Cunningham, and Steve Miner.

“Ding Dong, You’re Dead!” – This comprehensive behemoth features new interviews with many cast & crew members, including Katt, Cunningham, Miner, Wendt, and more. As expected, this nuts-and-all piece covers the entire production, from inception to completion.

“Vintage Making-Of” – Like an old-school episode of “Extra”, this narrated piece looks at Cunningham and Miner’s shared horror history before discussing their latest venture.

A still gallery, two trailers, a teaser, and a trio of TV Spots are the remainder of the extra features.

House II: The Second Story Bonus Features:

There is an audio commentary featuring writer/director Ethan Wiley and producer Sean S. Cunningham.

“It’s Getting Weirder! – As with the lengthy piece done for the first film, this doc covers every nook & cranny, with plenty of input from the cast & crew.

A “Vintage EPK” features some great interview footage with Royal Dano. Not to be missed.

A still gallery, the film’s trailer, and a TV Spot conclude the bonus features.

Additionally, there is a very nice 148-page hardcover book included in the set, filled with information on the entirety of the series (the exact book is found in the U.K. set, too), making this already-sweet set even tastier.

Special Features:

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS:

  • Brand new 2K restorations of House and House II: The Second Story
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • The House Companion – limited edition 60-page book featuring new writing on the entire House franchise by researcher Simon Barber, alongside a wealth of archive material

HOUSE:

  • Audio commentary with director Steve Miner, producer Sean S. Cunningham, actor William Katt and screenwriter Ethan Wiley
  • Ding Dong, You’re Dead! The Making of House – brand new documentary featuring interviews with Steve Miner, Sean S. Cunningham, Ethan Wiley, story creator Fred Dekker, stars William Katt, Kay Lenz, and George Wendt, composer Harry Manfredini, special make-up and creature effects artists Barney Burman, Brian Wade, James Belohovek, Shannon Shea, Kirk Thatcher, and Bill Sturgeon, special paintings artists Richard Hescox and William Stout, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder
  • Stills Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailers

HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY:

  • Audio commentary with writer-director Ethan Wiley and producer Sean S. Cunningham
  • It’s Getting Weirder! The Making of House II: The Second Story – brand new documentary featuring interviews with Ethan Wiley, Sean S. Cunningham, stars Arye Gross, Jonathan Stark, Lar Park Lincoln, and Devin DeVasquez, composer Harry Manfredini, special make-up and creature effects artists Chris Walas, Mike Smithson, visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder
  • Stills Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer

BUY IT NOW!

  • House
  • House II: The Second Story
  • Special Features
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THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH Review: Friedkin Goes Mondo Catholic

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Starring Father Gabriele Amorth

Directed by William Friedkin


Hitting theaters this weekend in NYC and LA is William Friedkin’s new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. And right away I am asked: “Is it ‘good’?” You don’t watch a documentary like this with that in mind. Faces of Death, Traces of Death, Mondo Cane. They are not here to be “good”—they are beyond words like that. Beyond good and bad.

It is more like the sideshow—Behold! See what has not been seen before! The Horror! The Forbidden! And you hand the man your ticket — you see The Arabian Giantess at the flea market in New Jersey, and maybe it is a sleight of hand and made of papier-mâché, but it was worth that dollar, and now you have a story. You have bought your way into the unknown.

The Devil and Father Amorth is light on science (and length – it runs just 68 minutes) and heavy on faith. If you have been exposed to Friedkin’s — or more specifically, William Peter Blatty’s — work, there is the struggle with belief in the Roman Catholic faith, and also in the search for evidence of the miracle. You could also prove the Force of Divine Good if you could face the opposite side of the coin—the Force of Evil, in the vernacular of Catholicism—the Devil himself. Paradoxical, yes—faith exists without proof; and so what is the drive to tell the world God exists, the Devil exists?

In the documentary we learn Rome is filled with the possessed. Hundreds of people are contacting the Church about their own possession or the possession of their loved ones. The Most Holy Father Amorth is the person the Vatican has tapped to perform exorcisms—thousands of them. And sometimes he has repeat business. Christina is one such woman, exorcised nine times and still susceptible to the Force of Evil. Those of us who are non-believers look at this woman as someone who is troubled—but “through the eyes of faith,” obviously it is a demon.

Surrounded by her family, the rite begins, and you see… an actual exorcism. There is no enhancement, no Dick Smith make-up; it is not as dramatic as we want it to be. Should we get her help that is not in the form of a witch doctor? What about doctors? And so we meet them.

Friedkin brings the footage to top hospitals in NYC. Psychologists give their point of view. Then neurosurgeons. They don’t know what’s going on—the exorcism seems to help, but they do see that it might be a cultural remnant. There is a medical diagnosis for it, as it can affect anyone of any faith. But the doc never digs too deep. I am disappointed: I needed to know more. I don’t believe it.

Are they hurting Christina? Is she just another female the Church is suppressing, as they did with witches—the control, the stigma, of the female body and identity? None of this is explored because it’s just a 1-dollar ticket under the striped tent, just left of the dancing girls and the strong man—Actual! Exorcist! Footage! Hurry up and see!

As Friedkin mentioned himself, when someone asks you to film an exorcism, you say yes. So see it for the freak show. Expect nothing else. And either you believe or you don’t, based on how you were raised — mythology, religion, or superstition.

  • The Devil and Father Amorth
2.0

Summary

See it for the freak show. Expect nothing else.

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Tribeca 2018: The Dark Review – Atmospheric Zombie Horror Done Different

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Starring Nadia Alexander, Toby Nichols

Written by Justin P. Lange

Directed by Justin P. Lange


The zombie subgenre often goes through waves where it focuses on one aspect that changes the status quo before overdoing it completely. Romero’s slow shuffling zombies were the norm until we got fast moving zombies with Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. There was even a period where we had smarter zombies, like in Fido and Warm Bodies. Now it seems like we’re about to enter an era where the undead are meant to elicit emotion, making us feel for those who have no feelings themselves. Such is the case with Justin P. Lange’s The Dark.

The film follows Mina (Alexander), a young woman who was murdered and stalks the forest that saw her demise. Anytime some unfortunate soul enters her area, they are quickly dispatched and become her feast. But when she stumbles across a young boy named Alex (Nichols) in the back of a car who shows signs of clear and horrifying abuse, she can’t bring herself to do away with him. Rather, she becomes his protector while trying to protect her own little world. As police and locals search for Alex to help bring him home, their own growing relationship seems to be changing Mina in ways she never thought possible.

Stylishly shot by cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl (The Eremites, Macondo), The Dark lives and breathes along with the forest in which it spends the majority of its time. The film feels very natural, as though no artificial lighting was used and we are brought into the world in which these characters live. Steel blue washes over the screen as dusk turns into night while light and dark contrast during the day. The only visuals that didn’t play well were Mina’s undead look and Alex’s scarred eyes, which were both distracting but possible to be overlooked.

Both Alexander and Nichols performed well enough, although the film spent too much time on the first two acts of their story, their combative phase and then the period where they build trust, leaving them scrambling at the end to show that they not only trust but are reliant upon each other. Alex finds trust in Mina after his horrific ordeal while Mina’s choice to protect and guide him sees her humanity slowly coming back.

Where the film goes awry is that it doesn’t know how to convey its message. We learn that Mina’s death was the result of a sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend, who can barely look Mina in the eyes, turns violent. Alex’s captor is also a man of violence but that’s mixed with weakness and timidity. This is a theme throughout the movie, where the adults are wicked and/or self-serving and it’s only these teenagers, who certainly have endured a fair share of suffering, can be seen as worthy of empathy and understanding.

Also present and enough to stay in the back of my mind while watching The Dark were the strange and inconsistent ways it handled time. We learn that Mina’s death was several years, possibly more than a decade, prior to where we see her now. But when presented with an iPhone, she first doesn’t know that it has a history of previously made calls and then, without anyone explaining it, she knows exactly how to use it. Meanwhile, Alex’s scars on his eyes, which the movie hints were done by his kidnapper, suggest that he’s been held captive for months if not longer but the the opening of the movie suggests that it’s been a few weeks, at most. While not overly distracting, these are certainly issues that pop out.

These faults aside, The Dark is still effective and emotionally charged. With enough kills to satisfy the bloodthirsty, it will certainly have an audience who love films about the undead but are craving something with a different taste.

  • The Dark
3.0

Summary

Poignant and original, The Dark is not without its flaws. But it sure does know that horror doesn’t have to be solely of the flesh. It can just as easily be horror of the heart.

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Sinfonia Erotica Blu-ray Review – Jess Franco Meets The Marquis De Sade In This Romanticized Roughie

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Starring Lina Romay, Armando Borges, Aida Gouveia, Mel Rodrigo

Directed by Jesus Franco

Distributed by Severin Films


After going my whole life without ever seeing a Jess Franco film, Severin Films is slowly forcing me to appreciate the man’s work. Previously, I had only ever seen Franco’s gargantuan output as an exercise in quantity over quality, which it arguably still is, but viewing the two recent “lost” pictures Severin just released has brought about a new appraisal. Franco’s films may have been done on the cheap, but the man clearly had vision, ambition, and brought as much production value to his films as budgetarily possible. He also brought controversy and damnation, since many of his works seem heavily focused on nudity and all manner of depravity. Even by today’s standard, when you can see virtually anything sexual on the internet, Franco’s level of lasciviousness is mildly shocking, if only because certain acts are typically verboten on the silver screen.

Sinfonia Erotica (1980) plays like it was trying to keep up with Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), only swap out Roman decadence for the posh trappings of a chateau in the French countryside. Franco remakes his own 1973 film Pleasure for Three here, though without having seen that picture I can’t say what he’s done differently. The storyline comes from the writings of the Marquis de Sade, whose writings were infamously erotic and dripping with all manner of sin. Franco brings as much of the page to screen as possible, leaving little to suggestion. Homosexuality, a “Devil’s threeway”, oral sex between all parties, rape, manual stimulation… all graphically presented in a way that is between Skinemax and actual pornography. But is there anything more to this threadbare feature than a storyline skeleton on which everyone can hang their clothes before getting down?

Kinda. The general plot here is the return of Miss Martine (Lina Romay) to the palatial estate she shared with her husband, Marques Armando de Bressac (Armando Borges), a notorious hedonist. Upon arrival, Martine is not greeted by her husband because he’s off gallivanting with Flor (Mel Rodrigo), his younger male lover. During one of their trysts in the fields they come across Wanda (Aida Gouveia), an unconscious nun who is about to be rudely introduced to some bad habits. After Marques and Flor molest the barely coherent woman, she develops a craving for their brand of unorthodox lust. Martine, meanwhile, is struggling not only with the fact her husband is essentially ignoring her after returning from a lengthy absence but that he now plans to enlist Flor and Wanda to help kill her. Of course, none of these machinations or revelations will stop any of these pleasure seekers from continuing to drown in the Devil’s work and writhe in passion.

While I can’t say this is a good movie, I do give Franco credit in a few areas. For one, I find it commendable that he’s chosen to redo an earlier film of his in the hope of making something grander. It shows maturity as an artist as well as a refusal to allow a perceived past failure to remain stagnant. Secondly, his location scouting ability is really something because one constant I have noticed across the three Franco films I’ve seen thus far is the man loves to shoot at places that seem like they’d be out of his budget range. The mansion and its impressive grounds are the ideal setting for this posh perversion picture, allowing Sinfonia Erotica to feel less like the Eurosleaze it is. Likewise, costuming and production design are a notch above what viewers might expect from such a ribald title.

In terms of horror, aside from watching two men rape an incoherent nun the only murder comes during the climax. The deaths are quick and simple, with no lingering shots or impressive effects work. Violence is wholly secondary to sex here.

The real coup here is that Severin Films is able to present this film in HD at all, sourcing their release from a newly unearthed 35mm exhibition print found in a crawlspace in Spain. Although scanned in a 4K the disc opens with a disclaimer discussing the provenance of available materials and suggesting viewers cut a little slack when watching something that might not have otherwise seen the light of day. That said the 1.66:1 1080p image isn’t awful by any means. Soft shots are frequent, film grain is often heavy and sometimes clumpy, and colors are lacking punch. Still, given what Severin was working with the picture does look reasonably cleaned up, though white flecks and damage are still visible, and the overall image is acceptably presented. Plus, like I’ve said many times before some films just look better when they stay rough around the edges and this is definitely one such example.

No dub is available, leaving the only audio option as a Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. This is a simple track with minimal sound design. Dialogue is understandable enough, though for most viewers this won’t matter since the subs are doing all the work. There is some hissing but it remains a minor issue. The score, composed by Franco, has a classical romantic feel, heavy on the piano and adding an air of regality to the proceedings. Subtitles are available in English.

“Jess Franco on First Wife Nicole Guettard” is an interview with the director in his later years (the year isn’t stated) discussing his working and personal relationship with the woman he divorced in the late ‘70s.

“Stephen Thrower on Sinfonia Erotica” is a typically informative featurette wherein Thrower discusses the period in Franco’s career during which he made this film, as well as covering various edits and title changes.

Special Features:

  • Jess Franco On First Wife Nicole Guettard – Interview With Director Jess Franco
  • Stephen Thrower On Sinfonia Erotica – Interview With The Author Of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jesus Franco’
  • Sinfonia Erotica
  • Special Features
1.8

Summary

This is probably the sort of film that appeals to only the most fervent of Francophiles out there but the work Severin Films has done to bring it home is commendable and the results, while far from earthshaking, are impressive given the difficulty level. As for the film, it’s an interesting exercise in debauchery and not much more.

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