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WEIRD WISCONSIN: THE BILL REBANE COLLECTION Blu-ray Review

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Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection starring Henry Hite, Paul Bentzen, Ralph Meeker, George “Buck” Flower

Directed by Bill Rebane

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Prior to Arrow Films’ announcement of “Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection” I had neither heard of the man nor any of the six features contained therein. That’s not necessarily a red flag but after shredding my brain with a three-day Rebane-a-thon I came to understand why his films aren’t more widely discussed: they aren’t very good.

Now, I will say over the course of six films I did find some occasional charm from the low-budget aesthetics and regional acting – famous faces are scarce in Rebane country – but most of the pictures, for me, felt like they were produced with that age-old grindhouse mantra in mind: shoot it cheap and hope it hits big. Rebane is like Wisconsin’s H.G. Lewis, a fitting comparison considering Lewis stepped in to finish Rebane’s first feature, Monster a Go-Go! (1965) so it could be paired with another of Lewis’ features on the drive-in double-bill circuit. This is a set aimed at the lo-fi crowd and while I occasionally identify with that group there are qualities to Rebane’s work that keep it at an arm’s length for my tastes.

As mentioned, Monster A Go-Go! is a cobbled-together mess of a film, having been started by Rebane in the early ‘60s before he ran out of money and abandoned it. Some years later H.G. Lewis bought the footage, shot additional material – with different actors – and released an incomprehensible mess to pair up with his own film, Moonshine Mountain (1964). This is the sort of shoddy camp that’s the perfect fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 – which it was back in 1993. The nonsense story concerns an American astronaut, Fred Douglas, who vanishes from his capsule during descent back to Earth. Soon after, a tall humanoid thing emanating radiation begins attacking unsuspecting citizens. Is it Douglas? The film runs for a brisk 68 minutes and let me say this: you will certainly feel each one of them.

Next up for Rebane is Invasion from Inner Earth (1974), a film where a group of pilots is squirreled away at a cabin in the wilderness of Canada while frequent radio broadcasts inform on the alien invasion we wish we could be seeing instead – though to be fair a craft (of questionable artistic merit) is shown at some point. This is an exercise in “show, don’t tell”, placing the onus squarely on the actors to carry the film… but none can. With equally weak writing and virtually no action to be seen, this is like watching a stage play about paint drying.

Thirdly, we come to The Alpha Incident (1978), a film where Rebane begins to show signs of some cinematic life. Once again the setting is confined – a train station – and the cast small, though now we aren’t only given regional actors.  Ralph Meeker pops up in the lead role but the most exciting casting is seeing former John Carpenter regular George “Buck” Flower as a train employee who sets the plot in motion.

A train car carrying a deadly life-ending organism from Mars is halted and its passengers quarantined when an outbreak occurs. The organism only strikes when a person is asleep, but if it does attack expect to have your eyes pop out and your skull split as your brain explodes – and Rebane actually manages to pull off some decent FX work showcasing that reaction. The acting here is mostly good and that goes a long way in keeping the feature from being a total drag. The events of the film also mirror in some ways the current pandemic, making Rebane’s movie seem slightly prescient.

Fourth is The Demons of Ludow (1983), inarguably the best film in the set. I might even go so far as to say I like it. Rebane got hooked up with a co-producer who worked with Ulli Lomell and the resulting picture has an air of Italian horror and genuine atmosphere, making it Rebane’s most accessible and entertaining picture. A piano is sent to the citizens of Ludlow by a relative of the town’s founder, its namesake – only what nobody knows is this piano is haunted by ghosts.

It seems the founder and his people were cast out and tortured by the ancestors of the current populace and ol’ Ludlow wants his revenge. This is Rebane doing straightforward horror film and that’s probably why I like it – that, and it has the same wild anything-can-happen energy of the gonzo ‘80s Italian horror movies, too. Some good gore gags and optical effects to be seen and an undercurrent of creepiness runs through the entire picture.

The penultimate film here is The Game (1984), about a trio of eccentric elites who bring together nine people for a chance to win a cool million bucks in their yearly game. The catch? They have to face their own mortal fears. Rebane pulls off a few fears in decent fashion – a shark attack in a swimming pool being a completely irrational fear I certainly had as a kid. We’ve all thought it, ridiculous as it is.

The biggest problems here are standard for Rebane: the writing isn’t good and the acting is worse. There are over a dozen main players and none of them has the chops to deliver a single line with any sense of emotion or conviction. This story could have been marginally successful with some tightening in these areas, and I think a remake could be interesting, but it’s far too shoddy to work as well as it should. I was actually bummed out this isn’t better because I do like the premise and how it’s never afraid to get weirder than you think.  

Finally, the worst is saved for last: Twister’s Revenge! (1988). Rebane attempts true comedy for the first, last, and only time and it is painfully obvious none of it works. A trio of bumbling redneck mechanics overhears a customer talking about his expensive automotive computer equipment and immediately decides to rip the guy off, only they don’t know his supercomputer is super intelligent.

Eventually the robo-brain winds up in a monster truck named Mr. Twister and it looks to seek vengeance on the morons who are trying to steal it. I can’t even begin to explain where this goes wrong. Here’s a start: not a single one of the three lead actors delivers anything definable as comedic. There isn’t a single joke that even halfway works. The only credit I can give is the monster truck looks awesome and it smashes a lot of shit. But I could’ve seen a three-minute video of something similar online and saved my brain 90 insipid minutes.

The set wraps up with a lengthy documentary on Bill Rebane, Who is Bill Rebane?, covering his life and career from start to present. I truly did want to have more fun with this set because I can always appreciate low-budget filmmaking if the heart and passion and effort show through in the final product; however, none of Rebane’s films ever felt like more than a cheap cash grab and few of his actors were equipped with the talent needed to keep trite dialogue and static situations lively and fresh. If that’s your bag then, hey, this may be the set for you but outside of The Demons of Ludlow I can’t imagine revisiting any of these films.

As explained in the accompanying hardcover booklet, Arrow Films restored each of the six films to the highest quality possible, using the best available elements. Monster A Go-Go! is 1.33:1 and black and white, with middling contrast, numerous scratches, plenty of dirt… it’s as much of an eyesore as the film itself is to watch. Invasion comes from a 2K scan of a 16mm print and the 1.33:1 image is scratchy and soft, with heavy grain, though it does look much better than Monster.

The Alpha Incident is plenty ugly, with a 1.85:1 picture that’s washy, wan, and fairly ugly at night. Again, I have no doubt Arrow did their best with all of these transfers, so know that this is likely the best all of them can look. Demons of Ludlow comes from a 35mm print and while the 1.85:1 picture is still filled with soft shots and average color density there is minimal damage and the print used looks pretty well cleaned up. The Game is equally pleasing, with another filmic 1.85:1 (or 1.33:1) image that has loads of natural film grain and is mainly free of dirt and heavy scratching. Twister’s Revenge looks like it came from the ‘70s (it doesn’t) and the 1.85:1 image is acceptable, though some damage and emulsion scratches are evident.

Each film has the same audio option, English DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono, none of which is particularly strong. Monster fares the worst while the rest range in quality from passable to average. Arrow always does a bang-up job across the board in terms of a/v quality and any deficiencies heard on this set are almost assuredly due to inherent limitations and the lack of quality when the sound was captured. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

Special Features:

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

  • Six Bill Rebane films, all newly restored from the best surviving film elements: Monster A Go-Go (1965), Invasion from Inner Earth (1974), The Alpha Incident (1978), The Demons Of Ludlow (1983), The Game (1984), Twister’s Revenge (1988)
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations on 4 Blu-ray discs
  • Original uncompressed mono audio for all films
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Straight Shooter, a multi-part interview with director Bill Rebane about the making and release of each film in the set
  • Who is Bill Rebane? A definitive brand new feature length documentary by historian and critic David Cairns, featuring contributions from filmmakers, fans, historians, critics, and the cast and crew who worked with Bill Rebane [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE]
  • Fully illustrated 60-page collector’s booklet featuring extensive new writing by historian and critic Stephen
  • Thrower, author of Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of Exploitation Independents [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE]
  • Reversible poster featuring newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE]
  • Reversible sleeves featuring newly commissioned artwork for each of the films by The Twins of Evil

DISC ONE – MONSTER A GO-GO + INVASION FROM INNER EARTH

  • Straight Shooter Part 1 and Part 2, two newly filmed interviews about the making of Monster A Go-Go and Invasion from Inner Earth with director Bill Rebane
  • Brand new interview with historian and critic Kim Newman about the films of Bill Rebane
  • Twist Craze, and Dance Craze, two early short films by Bill Rebane
  • Kidnap Extortion (1973), a newly restored industrial short directed by Bill Rebane
  • Stills and Promotional Gallery

DISC TWO – THE ALPHA INCIDENT + THE DEMONS OF LUDLOW

  • Straight Shooter Part 3 and Part 4, two newly filmed interviews about the making of The Alpha Incident and The Demons of Ludlow with director Bill Rebane
  • Rebane’s Key Largo, a brand new visual essay by historian and critic Richard Harland Smith
  • The Alpha Incident original trailer
  • The Demons of Ludlow original trailer
  • Stills and Promotional Gallery

DISC THREE – THE GAME + TWISTER’S REVENGE

  • Two presentations of The Game (aka The Cold) in 1.85 and 1.33 aspect ratio
  • Straight Shooter Part 5 and Part 6, two newly filmed interviews about the making of The Game and Twister’s Revenge with director Bill Rebane
  • Discovering Bill Rebane, brand new presentation by historian & critic Stephen R. Bissette about his personal connections with the films of Bill Rebane and their importance to regional film making in America
  • The Game original trailer
  • Twister’s Revenge original trailer
  • Stills and Promotional Gallery

DISC FOUR – WHO IS BILL REBANE? (2021) + BONUS

  • Who is Bill Rebane? Exclusive new feature length documentary by historian and critic David Cairns on the life and work of the Wisconsin auteur, featuring historians, critics, filmmakers, plus cast and crew members who worked with Bill Rebane
  • King of the Wild Frontier a new almost two-hour impassioned conversation with historian and critic Stephen R. Bissette about the films of Bill Rebane
  • Invasion from Inner Earth outtakes from the shoot
  • The Alpha Incident outtakes from the shoot
  • The Demons of Ludlow outtakes from the shoot
  • The Giant Spider Invasion original trailer
  • Gallery of Behind the Scenes stills
  • Stills and Promotional Galleries for the rest of Rebane’s filmography
  • Monster A Go-Go
  • Invasion from Inner Earth
  • The Alpha Incident
  • The Demons of Ludlow
  • The Game
  • Twister's Revenge!
  • Special Features
1.4

Summary

I might not love the content but once again Arrow has delivered a lavish set for something strange and that I can appreciate. Fans of Rebane are likely all over this but for the uninitiated be aware of what you’re getting into beforehand. Those who do like these no-budget affairs will be greeted by good-as-it-gets a/v quality and a wealth of extras.

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