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The Arrow: The Bog Is Hell in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive

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eaten aliveIn his new interview conducted for inclusion on this Arrow Films Blu-ray, director Tobe Hooper seems unable to convey the reason behind his decision to shoot Eaten Alive on a soundstage, stating only a desire to do it.

Between this discussion and the included archival interview, Hooper implies a desire to give this backwoods oddity a nightmarish, or otherworldly, feel. And unlike his previous Texas Chain Saw Massacre, revered for its realism, Eaten Alive’s design places it firmly inside the far-gone psyche of its antagonist (Neville Brand) with its desolate, dilapidated location and boosted color palettes that heighten his isolation and madness.

It’s not perfect, but Eaten Alive is unique for several reasons, from its structure right down to its overt weirdness. It’s just creepier than expected. In his interviews, Hooper seems proud of the fact there are very few films like it, and he’s right. The narrative is repetitious. For much of the running time, it’s just scenes of people checking in to this dingy hotel, to either be dispatched by our lunatic via his massive scythe blade or fed to his pet crocodile that inhabits the front yard bog. And while it may sound like Eaten Alive is your typical mid-to-late 70s proto-slasher, there’s hardly anything typical about it.

First of all there’s a mean streak that cuts a swath straight through the center. It isn’t just watching people show up and die; it’s watching people suffer some pretty nasty abuse at Brand’s hands. It gets worse when the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley, and his family pop in for an overnight stay where he proves to be just as disturbed as Brand. He heaps all sorts of verbal and mental abuse on his wife and child–especially insensitive since her dog was just devoured by the resident croc. Also of note, Robert Englund! His character, Buck, leaves one of the deepest impressions (deep enough for Quentin Tarantino to mostly repurpose it in Kill Bill Vol. 1) in a genuinely skeezy performance as our local womanizer/misogynist.

The influx of weirdos leads to a bonkers climax where all hell breaks loose. As Judd, Neville Brand is exactly the right kind of crazy. The moments where he loses his cool and pursues his victims are an odd mixture of frightening and baffling, while the death scenes remain disturbing even by today’s standards. They’re all heightened by an electronic sting that underscores every cut and stab, making viewers feel the impact as much as the victims. Coupled with the brazen and ever changing color scheme, and the movie is a deeply visceral experience. Despite its flaws, this is an approximation of one man’s personal hell, and it can be damn effective if you let it.

In some ways, Eaten Alive feels like the product of a very cynical “hey, let’s get that guy from Texas Chain Saw Massacre to do it again!” style cash-in from producers looking to recapture lightning in a bottle. Viewing this through that lens, it’s easy to see Eaten Alive as a failed effort. No, it’s not on the level of Chain Saw, but it’s fun if taken on its own terms. It must’ve been frustrating for Hooper to become “that guy” in the business so quickly, especially since he was trying to get an LA noir made following Chain Saw‘s success. So even if Eaten Alive‘s intentions were somewhat cynical, it remains a curiosity that’s worth checking out.

And true to form, Arrow’s Eaten Alive disc is the definitive edition. For starters, both Hooper interviews bring good information to the table. The archival one, previously found on the Dark Sky special edition, runs 20 minutes and nicely covers the experience of shooting this movie through Hooper’s eyes. He’s never explicit in detailing his clash with producers, although it’s strongly hinted at. It’s also nicely supplemented by a new interview with the director that recounts his attachment to the project in a rather vague way, along with his desire to shoot it on a soundstage. I still don’t know exactly what the hell Hooper is saying with Eaten Alive, and these features don’t necessarily help with that, but they’re worth a look for any curious parties.

The troubled production is covered in a little more detail via the audio commentary (also ported from the Dark Sky release), which features producer Mardi Rustam, actors William Finley, Roberta Collins, and Kyle Richards, along with FX artist Craig Reardon. This is one of those frankentracks where everyone’s participation was recorded separately and “stitched” together to match relevant action on screen. With so many different perspectives, it’s worth a listen. Rustam provides a little additional context for scenes he shot once Hooper left the project (interestingly, these are the worst in the film), while the actors are generally relegated to their screentime and offer some great recollections about working with Neville Brand.

Beyond the new Hooper interview, the director does a very brisk intro. Arrow also produced two new conversations for this release. The first, and my favorite extra in the set, is an incredibly vibrant and enjoyable discussion with actress Janus Blythe. Such a fun and energetic presence, Blythe is incredibly frank about the types of roles women could get in the 70s (“I mean, I have nice tits but come on…”) and recalls how the horror genre treated her a little better. Make-up FX man Craig Reardon recollects working on this in one of the dodgiest studios in town and takes an opportunity to wax philosophical about the appeal of horror films, especially in the socially turbulent times of the 1970s. Pretty interesting stuff.

Other supplements from the old Dark Sky SE include a lengthy chat with Buck himself, Mr. Robert Englund, who is never without stories to tell. These range from his early career as an actor to the challenges of going long stretches in between paychecks when you’re just starting out. He reveals his approach to Buck was to recreate a role he played on stage in The Rainmaker, only with added skeezinessand has no shortage of complimentary things to say about Tobe Hooper. There’s a five-minute featurette with the late Marilyn Burns, which is slight but sweet.

We also get a documentary on the real life case that served as the inspiration behind this film. It’s called The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball, and it covers his murder of several women, each of whom were fed to his pet alligators. It’s interesting, and one wishes the 20-minute history lesson had been a bit more expansive.

Rounding out this set are plenty of radio and TV spots, as well as the alternate opening credits (where Death Trap is the on screen title), a DVD copy of the film, reversible cover art, and a booklet essay penned by critic Brad Stevens.

Eaten Alive may not be as good as some of the director’s efforts, but it’s a worthwhile curio all the same. Atmospheric and crazy, it’s perhaps too bad Hooper had to return to such familiar territory so soon, but nearly 40 years later it’s a movie worth appreciating for its own merits (or lack thereof).

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The Arrow: Big City Nights (Talking C.H.U.D. and Vamp)

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There’s an infamy to C.H.U.D. that, at first glance, feels unearned. It has a wacky reputation honed from an impressive collection of pop culture references, but it’s never crass enough to satisfy those who’ve come looking for exploitation.

C.H.U.D. is full of surprises, though. Its ambitious story serves a cast of talented performers, while strong cinematography captures a city drowning in grime. Some critics lift their noses and scoff at the prospect of creature “rubber work,” ignoring the fact that these titular monsters are among the decade’s best. No, C.H.U.D. isn’t the cheese classic many expect. Its aspirations are loftier, actually. It uses a nefarious government coverup as a springboard for monstrous carnage, but treats the two subplots as equals. That “sin” is unthinkable to some, but it also makes C.H.U.D. unique.

For much of its run time, director Douglas Cheek strikes a fine balance between the glow-eyed monsters and the disposal of toxic chemicals that has created them. Yes, caches of waste hidden deep in the city’s underground creates trouble for the Big Apple. The homeless population falls prey, mutating into brutal creatures that come crawling toward the surface in search of food.

Because of the story’s nature, Cheek understands that New York City is as much of a character as any cast member. 1980s New York sometimes seems like a relic, with its intense population of homeless stuffed into alleys that are overflowing with heaps of trash and slathered in grime. It’s also genuine atmosphere no special effect could replicate. That authenticity makes C.H.U.D. one of the quintessential NYC genre movies of this era. Play it alongside The Exterminator and Maniac for a taste of maximum Big Apple grit.

The climactic assault on Kim Griest is the film’s highlight, but every creature attack is ferocious. It’s striking just how vicious the CHUDs are, and everything about them works. When we shift our attention back to the issue of bureaucratic corruption, C.H.U.D. loses steamIn fact, it would’ve taken a simple reversal of the last two sequences to send C.H.U.D. off with a bang. Instead of Griest reuniting with John Heard at a pivotal moment, Heard and Daniel Stern might’ve resolved their situation and then realized she was in danger, racing off instead to save her from the CHUD menace.

New Work Pictures reedited C.H.U.D. before its theatrical release. They removed a handful of character bits and reordered at least one key sequence. The Arrow Blu-ray contains both cuts, labeled director’s and theatrical. The theatrical version opts to end with a sequence of creature carnage. It’s no less of a head-scratcher, but using the diner sequence (complete with John Goodman cameo) as a bumper is pretty fun. That said, stick with the director’s version. The movie has some incongruences, sure, but it’s still a stronger product (and we learn the identity of the opening victim, which is crucial to one character’s arc).

It’s not uncommon to mention Vamp in the same breath as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Both exist in similar “it happened one night…” scenarios, and the nightmarish quality that defines Scorsese’s most underrated effort plays a role in Vamp, too. Like many 80s comedies, it’s a quest for sex that propels our protagonists into increasingly odd situations. It starts as a sojourn to a strip club where the women allegedly do anything, and becomes a movie that could only have been made in the 1980s.

With Vamp, most of the elements are in place. It’s frequently funny and always charming. The FX work is impressive within the scope of its low budget, and it gets a lot of mileage out of its atmosphere. While C.H.U.D. delivers a gritty big city nightmare, director Richard Wenk takes his urban sprawl in another direction. Here, neon glow coats the Los Angeles streets are near desolate and buildings, as if the strip club’s buzzing signs follow you everywhere. It feels sinister, forcing us to wonder when the vamps might catch our ill-fated heroes.

Cast-wise, Vamp is perfect. Best friends Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler have the kind of chemistry that makes us care about them, while Gedde Watanabe perfects his hormonally crazed persona from Sixteen Candles. Grace Jones is perfect as the joint’s star dancer, Katrina. She’s exotic enough to be a headliner, and has no trouble becoming a menacing creature of the night. One of the film’s strengths is building one hell of a supporting cast. Billy Drago as a crazed albino. Sandy Baron (Seinfeld‘s Jack Klompus) as the establishment owner. These bit parts create exactly the kind of strangeness you want in a “night from hell” movie.

These are very different movies. C.H.U.D. is an earnest attempt to do a 1950s monster mash (complete with governmental distrust) in a then modern environment. And Vamp is more concerned with quirky oddball sensibilities. Their cityscapes are the types of places that swallow the unsuspecting whole. Arrow’s Blu-ray presentations ensure these films have never looked better. Couple that with some stellar special features (yes, C.H.U.D.‘s infamous DVD commentary has been ported over), and you’ve got two ideal Christmas gifts for the cult movie fanatic in your life.

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The Arrow: The Hills Have Eyes and Dark Water

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hills-have-eyes-the-1977-limited-editionWes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes is a favorite. A beautifully unpolished movie that explores the razor thin line between civility and brutality. It pits an ordinary American family against a clan of cannibal savages in a battle of wits that becomes a struggle for survival. There’s things in here that have haunted me since forever, specifically the moment where the survivors are forced to use their recently deceased mother as bait. That bit perhaps summarizes Craven’s nihilistic worldview more than any other: as humans we’ll stop at nothing to survive, and it’s only through domestication that we’re able to subjugate our worst, most basic, instincts.

The Hills Have Eyes is all about that line. The Carter family parallels the hills folk because Craven suggests they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s no accident that at least one of the villainous cannibals is given a sympathetic character arc, and those class implications add another dimension to a deceptively complex picture. One of Craven’s signature strengths is exploring social issues without laying it on too thick. He’s smart enough to take audiences on the thrill ride they came for while rewarding repeat patronage with hidden depth.

From the death of the Peace and Love Generation in Last House on the Left, to the racial politics of The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the further exploration of class inequality in The People Under the Stairs, there’s an academic quality to Craven that none of his peers matched (and only Romero comes close). An entire film class could be taught around these works and their continued relevancy in modernity. But his films speak for themselves without a compulsion to spell it all out. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, its subversive quality makes it resonate. The last fifteen minutes are white knuckle, with an audience rooting firmly for our remaining heroes to vanquish Pluto and company. It’s about the need for catharsis, and there’s a reason it ends where it does, in the immediate aftermath of a repeated stabbing. Craven doesn’t want us to feel good about what we’ve witnessed, so there’s no release. The Hills Have Eyes isn’t in the business of assurances or answers, and so the abrupt finish leaves us to dangle on a proverbial hook.

No, he’s not judging the Carter family on their actions. Instead he’s suggesting that man’s savagery is never that surprising or impossible.

Alexandre Aja remade The Hills Have Eyes in 2006. It’s among the best remakes of that era, confidently made and packed with state-of-the-art brutality. It’s unbearably tense at times (the trailer sequence especially), although lacking in Craven’s social construct commentary. That’s why the original has retained much of its importance in its 40 years. This genre has witnessed countless fights for survival, but only Wes Craven cuts right to the bone to suggest our own inhumanity lurks right beneath the veneer of civility.

The Hills Have Eyes has been available in several iterations, but none have looked anywhere close to Arrow’s edition. I took a fair amount of flak for my 2011 review of Image Entertainment’s dismal disc, and I’m happy to report that Hills has finally earned a definitive video release. It looks great. In order to resurrect this classic, Arrow assembled a print culled from two surviving 35mm prints, taking the best parts of both and scanning it at 4k. Craven shot Hills on 16mm, so this is never going to be a pretty film. But it’s a visual improvement by leaps and bounds, heightened by beautiful packaging that elevates this release to that of a major event. No matter how many times you’ve owned The Hills Have Eyes, this is worth your money.

dark-water-2002Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water may seem like an odd pairing for this conversation, but this Japanese ghost story eschews the trappings of traditional horror in favor of measured scares. Much of its run time focuses on the impact divorce has on a family unit, specifically on the child. Set in a world seemingly besieged by endless rain, the drab apartment interior makes the perfect visual metaphor for the internals of our protagonists. A young mother tries to keep her life and career together by moving into said apartment, a place that saw the mysterious disappearance of a young girl years before.

Watching Dark Water now, it’s difficult to take it on its own terms. The ‘scary Japanese ghost child’ bit hasn’t only been played out, but cigarette stubbed. Blame Hollywood for raiding this trope with reckless abandon, leaving not the slightest ounce of meat on the sub genre’s caracas. It’s unfair to criticize this Dark Water for that, but its trappings are tiresome regardless. And Japan isn’t beyond blame either, running the aesthetic into the ground with countless Ring and Grudge sequels, spin-offs and reboots. By the time Nakata even got around to making Dark Water, it was a little long in the tooth.

What keeps the film compelling nearly 15 years after the fact isn’t the pale-faced ghost child-that’s a small part of the story. The oppressive atmosphere that Nakata conjures and sustains is something special, however. It’s a film that can make you cold in even its simplest scenes. Dark Water also asks a lot of its main actress, Hitomi Kuroki, who rises to the challenge in making this succeed as an emotional domestic drama when the shocks are slow to come.

While you can usually depend on a high quality audio/video presentation with Arrow’s discs, their Dark Water release is among their least impressive outings. As best as I can figure it, they were given a very old and outdated HD master with which to work. It’s not exactly the disaster some are making it out to be, but if you’re going to pay a premium price for this release, you should know it’s not exactly an ideal presentation.

These two horror films may seem like strange bedfellows. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes is masterful survival horror about the delicacy of civilization, while Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water uses supernatural horror as a metaphor for familial trauma. In both cases, we’re looking at movies with a lot more under the hood than the genre is often given credit for. The Hills Have Eyes is one of my favorite releases in an already impressive year, while Dark Water is of the try before you buy variety.

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The Arrow: A Blood Bath Involving Swinging Cheerleaders and Crimes of Passion

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bloodbathBlood Bath is one of the best releases in recent memory. This honor has almost nothing to do with the film(s) contained within the package, but because it’s a comprehensive study of a film production that can only be described as an unmitigated disaster.

The movie started life as a foreign spy flick, transitioned into a psychological thriller about a deranged artist dunking beatniks in boiling wax, and wound up a piece of vampire schlock about a shape-shirting vampire. Yes, really. One movie. Endless reshoots and reshapes. Three directors. A complete mess. What’s really fascinating about this box set is that you can trace the picture’s evolution through the inclusion of these edits. The end result doesn’t necessarily make anything inside this box worthwhile, but there’s probably no greater curiosity on the market.

One of those directors, Jack Hill, is a 60s/70s drive-in mainstay. He’s responsible for what is probably my favorite blaxploitation movie ever (Coffy, sugar!), and has made endless contributions on the fringes of exploitation. Arrow Video seems to like Hill, as they’ve released great editions of some of his most notable works, with both Pit Stop and Spider Baby being among his best (reviews here).

Now we’ve got Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders on Blu, and it’s…a bit of a disappointment. Considering the behind-the-scenes pedigree, as well as the bevy of gorgeous women in front of the camera, this should’ve been an easy home run. This unofficial series has produced a few highly entertaining entries (The Cheerleaders, Revenge of the Cheerleaders, and Cheerleaders Wild Weekend), but this one’s the nadir.

swinging-cheerleadersThe story finds a college newspaper reporter going undercover to write an expose on the exploitation and degradation of cheerleaders. It sounds like an excuse for raucous exploitation but it’s perhaps the tamest effort in the series. The Cheerleaders is about as softcore as a movie can be without being pornographic. And the other movies in the series offer varied instances of exploitation. The Swinging Cheerleaders isn’t just reserved, it teeters on being downright dull.

Part of that can be explained away because Jack Hill seems bored by the prospect of making a straight-up “tits and ass” movie. He devotes a lot of time to our main character’s investigation, and hedges the run time against an equally dull subplot about illegal betting. The film is lighthearted enough to recommend for a summer afternoon, but it’s hardly among the best things Arrow has released, and ranks among the weakest Jack Hill offerings I’ve seen to date.

Jack Hill has nothing to do with Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion, but it shares some of the duality of The Swinging Cheerleaders as our central heroines both pretend to be something they’re not, straddling two lifestyles until the lines of life are blurred. That’s reaching a little, I admit, but my point stands. In The Swinging Cheerleaders our character learns a simple life lesson and moves on. Crimes of Passion is a heavier film, weird, hilarious, disturbing and purposefully obtuse. The duality here comes from China Blue (Kathleen Turner, brilliant in this film), a seamstress by day and highly sought hooker by night.

Crimes of Passion is great because, while China is assertive, the movie has no desire to justify or explain her existence. Of her two lives, the 9-to-5 gig resonates as the facade–a way to keep up appearances and nothing more. We spend much more time inside China’s ‘other’ world–grimy hotel rooms and seedy street corners. We’re given the sense this is what she wants out of life. What she loves doing.

crimes-of-passionAnd that’s not a judgement. At least, I don’t think it is. Writer/director Ken Russell uses China to illustrate the importance of sex as a conduit to emotional connection. We see this through her relationship with married man John Laughlin, himself struggling to be fulfilled in his 9-to-5 marriage to Annie Potts. And it’s magnified via the guise of a deranged street preacher (Anthony Perkins in a performance that must be seen to be believed) who wants to brutalize China with a specialized dildo as a means of delivering her ‘salvation.’ Russell’s examination of America’s conservative struggles with sex is an incredible artistic achievement and perhaps one of the best films to come out of the 1980s.

This is wild stuff, and Arrow’s Blu-ray gives us two cuts of the movie to choose from. There’s really no reason to go for the R-rated cut, however, as the unrated version dials the sleaze up to 11. This is the way Russell intended it, and you might just feel the need for a cleansing shower after viewing. Again, as Russell perhaps intended.

All three of these discs are intrinsic of the care that Arrow Video takes with their titles. Blood Bath‘s selling point *is* its special features (the entire package is essentially one huge supplement), while Crimes of Passion finally finds the kind of release it’s long deserved. The Swinging Cheerleaders also gets a nice dollop of extras that help flesh out the film’s place in exploitation history.

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