Saturday, October 9, 2021
Tonight's movie. Been waiting for a chance to watch this 2020 Australian thriller, and it was certainly worth it. It's a slow-burn, but it absolutely succeeds in seducing you into its story, its characters, and its mystery. Eric Bana is probably the best he has been since he played Chopper, cast here as a big city cop who returns to his home country town, now parched by drought, to investigate the apparent murder/suicide involving his childhood friend. At the same time, he needs to confront a secret of his own, which has been tormenting him for decades. I haven't read Jane Harper's 2016 book that the film is adapted from, and I think that certainly helped the impact it had on me. The less you know about the plot going in, the better. Having now seen the movie, I am intrigued enough to seek out the novel. The locations are as much a central character in the film as anything else, Stefan Duscio's camera capturing just the right angles and glints of sunlight reflecting off tin to make the harsh, bone dry environment (it was filmed in rural Melbourne, around the Horsham area).
Saturday, September 25, 2021
‘FILMED ON ACTUAL LOCATIONS WHERE IT COULD HAVE HAPPENED!’
A grimy exploitation retelling of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), She Freak (1967) is one of the best carnival-centric films ever made, and in my view the best film which producer David F. Friedman attached his name to after his split with legendary gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis. While Lewis hailed from a Chicago advertising background, Friedman had gained his experience in a genuine carnival environment, and his affection for the carnie lifestyle clearly shows in this film (which he both produced and wrote, as well as briefly appearing as a carnival barker/ticket seller).
Even before the opening credits to She Freak roll, we are treated to a wonderful five-minute montage of authentic carnival footage, which Friedman and director Bryon Mabe filmed on a handheld Arriflex during a day trip to the California State Fair in Sacramento. This footage really sets the ambience for She Freak’s sleazy tale of beautiful but bored white trash princess Jade Cochran (played so convincingly by Claire Brennan), who quits her job at a greasy middle-of-nowhere diner and runs off with the carnival that comes traveling through town. Making friends with the carnival’s sexy stripper, Pat Mullins (Lynn Courtney), Jade quickly works her way up from serving hot dogs at the food stand to walking down the aisle with Steve St. John, the well-off but rather boring owner of the sideshow attraction (played by Bill McKinney, who later made Ned Beatty squeal like a pig in 1972's Deliverance).
Jade doesn’t let a little thing like marriage stop her from continuing a torrid affair with Blackie (Lee Raymond), the ruggedly handsome Ferris wheel operator. Her spiteful side starts to show itself in the way she treats Shorty, the carnival’s little person who knows the secret of her late-night trysts in Blackie’s trailer. When Steve catches his wife and Blackie in the act, he is taken out by a knife to the stomach, leaving Jade to inherit the sideshow. She starts snubbing former close co-workers and immediately begins to instigate unwanted changes, such of the sacking of the much-loved Shorty. Just like the climax of Freaks, Jade ends up paying dearly for her treatment of those around her, as a shiv-wielding Shorty and the sideshow freaks, toward whom Jade had always shown revulsion, converge on her and transform her into the show’s latest attraction, a hideous beast woman put on display in a pit of snakes.
She Freak is a remarkable film on so many levels. The authentic carnival footage is obviously one of its main assets - it helps give the low-budget (around US $65,000) movie a sense of scope and scale, and serves as a wonderful and important time capsule of the American traveling carnival and sideshow as it was at that particular moment in time (footage from She Freak has turned up in numerous documentaries on the subject). The colour photography really gives the film a rich and gaudy ambience, and there are certain moments, particularly those between Jade and Blackie in his grotty trailer, which look like the cover art of a vintage adult paperback come to life. There’s no nudity and only a small smattering of blood, but it’s still one of the classic exploitation flicks of its era, and it enjoyed a solid run of the grindhouse and drive-in circuits, where it did the rounds for several years.
Despite the film’s lack of skin, Claire Brennan still manages to project a teasing and raw sensuality. There are a some terrifically framed shots which capture her at various times throughout the movie - particularly effective are an early shot of her standing at the door of the diner she works for, the sunlight providing a clear suggestion of the form which lies under her uniform, and a very Russ Meyer-esque shot of her framed in a low angle shot between the tight-jeaned crotch of Blackie. Brennan was in her early-thirties when she played the role of Jade, something which I think helped project the character’s sense of wanting something a bit better from life before it’s too late. Tragically, she died of cancer not long after the film was released, at the age of only 43. She looks amazing in She Freak, strutting about the carnival in pink tights and matching sleeveless blouse. Among her other credits were the 1961 prohibition-set sexploitation flick The Touchables, appearances on numerous episodic television shows (including Gunsmoke, S.W.A.T. and The Streets of San Francisco), and a bit part in the 1977 Gene Hackman film The Domino Principle. Her last known appearance was as Carolina Moon in Robert Aldrich’s The Choirboys (1977).
Also released, briefly and without Friedman’s permission, as Asylum of the Insane (with unrelated 3D footage attached), She-Freak appeared on VHS through several labels during the 1980s and 90s, including Magnum and Something Weird, before the later issued it on DVD in 2000, in a nice special edition which featured an audio commentary from Friedman, along with the original trailer and a collection of rare archival black & white carnival footage from the 1930s (with sound). The DVD was also included in Something Weird’s four-pack ‘Freak Show’ box set from 2004, a release which also included Brad Grinter’s Blood Freak (1972), Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974), and Basket Case (1982).
And now, somewhat unbelievably, She Freak has arrived on Blu-ray, in a stunning release from AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird. While the film already looked amazing on DVD, the 4K restoration on the Blu-ray, struck from the original 35mm camera negative, gives the film a whole new level of lurid lushness. Simply put, the movie pops as never before, and the image so clear and immersive that you can almost smell the axle grease on the ferris wheel during its opening moments. Apart from its visual sharpness, the Blu-ray print also helps to highlight the film’s interesting (and at times very ambient) score, composed by Friedman regular William Allen Castleman under his Billy Allen pseudonym.
Special Features on the Blu-ray include an archival commentary from producer Friedman and Something Weird founder Mike Vraney (both now sadly deceased, the commentary is ported over from the old DVD release). There is also a feature-length compilation of classic Friedman trailers, the inserts shots filmed for the Asylum of the Insane version, some vintage archival sideshow/carnival footage, and an excellent 16 page illustrated booklet with rare photos and very informative liner notes written by Lisa Petrucci (current holder of the keys to the Something Weird vault). The Blu-ray also comes with a reversible sleeve, and there’s a limited (2,500) edition available direct from Vinegar Syndrome, which come housed in a nicely designed, embossed cardboard slipcase.
As with Something Weird and AGFA’s release of The Curious Dr. Humpp, She Freak is sure to rank high on the list for my favourite Blu-rays of 2021. It is
available from several online sources, including direct from the Something
Weird website, while the limited slipcover edition is still in stock at Vinegar
Syndrome. Click on the relevant links below, and prepare to get your (she)
Buy SHE FREAK from Something Weird Video!
SHE FREAK with Limited Slipcover
Sunday, August 29, 2021
Excited to announce that my recent interview with the legendary Toni Basil has now been published in the new issue of SHOCK CINEMA. Looks like another excellent issue, much thanks again to Toni for giving me so much of her time for the interview. Toni is an actor/singer/dancer/choreographer who has had an incredibly interesting and eclectic career dating back to the early-sixties, appearing in beach party movies, dancing with Davy Jones in HEAD, tangling with giant teens (and ducks) in VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, hooking up with Peter Fonda in EASY RIDER, hitching a ride with Jack Nicholson in FIVE EASY PIECES and so much more. She also starred in a couple of rock horror movies in the late-80s/early-90s: SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK and ROCKULA. Amongst her most recent work was choreographing the dance sequences in ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD. And of course, she scored a huge pop hit in 1982 with "Mickey", along with its memorable video, which was considered quite creative and ground-breaking in its day.
Monday, August 23, 2021
Recent true crime watch. Given the over-saturation that the subject has received, and the fact that Manson himself is now dead, I didn't think there would be much new to say about it. That said, this six-part documentary series from 2020 would have to rate as one of the most thorough and involving on the subject that I have ever seen. While there may not be much in the way of new information, especially for anyone who has studied or read extensively about the case, the six-hour running time gives HELTER SKELTER: AN AMERICAN MYTH the time it needs to cover aspects of the case in a more in-depth way, facets which are usually dismissed within a few seconds in other docos, if they are even mentioned at all. And there is a lot of incredible archival footage which I don't recall ever seeing before, including original television and radio broadcasts, which really unnerve and help give a palpable sense of just how shocking the whole event was at the time, and the fear which gripped the area in its wake, changing LA irrevocably in so many ways. Pity they couldn't pick a more original name for the documentary, to try and differentiate itself from all the other HELTER SKELTER movies and docos out there, but I guess it is the phrase most recognizable to the mainstream.
Received my contributor's copy of Pete Chiarella's GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY #19, which includes my article on FANTASM (1976) and FANTASM COMES AGAIN (1977), the two notorious Australian sexploitation features from producer Tony Ginnane, which were primarily shot in Hollywood using some of the most popular and notorious XXX stars of the time, including John Holmes, Rene Bond, Uschi Digard, Serena, and more.
I may not look overly thrilled, but this was my first time ever handling live snakes! A throwback to my days behind the counter at the infamous Polyester Books in Fitzroy (circa mid-2000s). On this day, author Raymond Hoser did an in-store to promote his books on Victorian police corruption. Hoser is also a snake and reptile handler, so he decided to bring some of his pets in with him. It was a fun day, we had a bowl of snake lollies on the counter to give out to customers, and we also bought some toy rubber snakes and hid them inside magazines and behind books, to try and scare browsers into thinking one of the real snakes had gotten away!
Saturday, August 14, 2021
My review of the new Australian Blu-ray box set HAMMER HORROR: FOUR GOTHIC HORROR FILM (1971-1972), released on the Imprint label from Via Vision, is now posted over at the FILMINK website. Follow the link below to read.
Saturday night movie, via the new local Blu-ray release from Imprint. Despite some slow passages, THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971) is quite an effective, low-budget tale of the occult in a small Californian town, where a coven of elderly Satanists recruit the local children as receptacles for their souls, and to do Beelzebub's bidding. There's some genuine creativity at work here, director Bernard McEveety achieves an interesting and quite unique atmosphere, surreal and dreamy, and the Blu-ray really highlights the film's excellent, nicely framed and composed, photography (it was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico). I still have the old RCA VHS release of this movie, as well as an unopened pack of "Satan's Soul" seeds, which were given out to promote the movie during it's original release (obtained through Andrew Leavold and his Trash Video Archives, who MAY have some more available). The seeds are a great reminder of the unique old novelty promotional items often produced for exploitation cinema like this. I'm sure I've still got the original paperback tie-in novelization tucked away somewhere, a pretty thin volume that was authored by actor L. Q. Jones, who not only starred in the movie but co-produced it and co-wrote the original story. The novelization was likely just an expanded and tidied-up version of Jones' original story.
Friday, July 23, 2021
Nothing like a bit of early, hungry KISS to get you up and moving on a chilly Friday morning. This recent fan film was put together by Andrew Sgambati and is terrific. It utilizes vintage live footage of the band from Cobo Hall 1976, with narration provided by the late Alison Steele, taken from both a 1976 radio interview and 1977 TV interview she did with the band. The whole thing is presented in the style of a classic 1970s late-night rock music special, complete with vintage TV ads from the era to give it an authentic feel. KISS need to hire Sgambati, his work is better than many official KISS releases (check out the links to his other KISS documentaries on You Tube and Vimeo, his GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH in particular is excellent).
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Received my contributor's copy of CINEMA OF THE 70s #3 today, featuring my six-page article on one of my absolute favourite movies from that (or any other) decade, Stanley Kramer's BLESS THE BEASTS & CHILDREN (1971). Other movies covered in this issue include NOSFERATU (1979) , SUPERMAN (1978), THE NIGHT PORTER (1974), WATERSHIP DOWN (1978), Bava's RABID DOGS (1974), Hal Ashby, CUT-THROATS NINE (1972), Screwball Comedies, and many more. Also includes a nice tribute to George Segal, including a back cover photo of him from ROLLERCOASTER (1977). Available now from Amazon in most countries.
Thursday morning lockdown movie. Haven't seen this 1986 Sidney Lumet thriller since its original VHS release. My opinion of the film remains basically the same as it did on that initial watch. It was clearly designed as a showcase for the maturing Jane Fonda, and on that level it succeeds admirably. Fonda is superb, and has a compelling physical screen presence, playing a once-promising Hollywood actress who never quite made it, and is now past her prime and permanently lost in a haze of booze and one night stands. When she wakes up next to the murdered body of a controversial sleaze photographer, with no memory of how he ended up dead, she seeks help from an ex-cop (Jeff Bridges) to determine if she is indeed the killer, or the victim of a set-up. Fonda does enjoy sinking her teeth into the scenery at times, but in a way this falls in line with her character, and her character's profession.
Monday, July 12, 2021
|John Landis directs Michael Jackson in "Thriller"|
I was truly gutted to hear of the sudden and very unexpected passing of Adam Lee over the weekend. A local legend on the film collecting scene, Adam's knowledge (and collection of) vintage Australian VHS tapes was second to none, as was his overall knowledge of, and passion for, genre cinema. Euro soundtracks were another big love of his.
I first met Adam back in the mid-90s, when I was publishing REEL WILD CINEMA! and he was publishing SPASMO. I published one of Adam's first pieces of writing, a look at Joe D'Amato's sleaze epic BEYOND THE DARKNESS, in an issue of REEL WILD CINEMA!, and thought it was one of the best things to ever grace its pages, even though Adam himself was still a little uncertain of his writing. In more recent years, it was always nice to catch up with him at a film fair or VHS swap meet, he was always smiling, always friendly, oftentimes he would sling me a few free old paperbacks that he had picked up that he thought I might like, or pass on one of the amazing custom CD soundtracks he would press.
To say I am saddened and in a state of shock is an understatement. Adam and I had just been talking about some of his upcoming projects, which sounded very exciting. He was really starting to get into doing some terrific work, with his excellent VIDEOMANIA zine and massive AUSTRALIAN VIDEO GUIDE, which he was currently in the process of updating and expanding. They will likely remain essential works for many years to come.
Much sympathy to Adam's partner Sarah, and all of
his family and friends. Gone much too soon, but was loved and made his mark. Recently,
I had written an introduction for the planned update of his AUSTRALIAN VIDEO
GUIDE, which he had been working feverishly on. I have decided to now publish
the intro that I wrote below, in tribute and memory to Adam.
One of the benefits of being an eager young film buff in the mid-seventies was getting to live through several different shifts in the landscape of home movie viewing. For those lucky enough not to be so old, the seventies were a much tougher time to see movies, even more so in Australia, where your choice was limited to what was showing at the cinema or drive-ins, or what any of the few commercial television stations would choose to air. Don’t get me wrong, television could still be pretty great back then, Ivan Hutchinson’s Midday Movie on Channel 7, and the all-night triple-movie marathons that screened almost every night on Channel 9, gave me a film education that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
For people who wanted the luxury of reliving a favourite film whenever the mood struck, the 1960s and 70s did offer the Super 8 home movie digest reels, which would usually edit a feature down to a short highlights reel and could be often purchased in both sound and silent, not to mention B&W or colour versions, depending on one’s budget. It should be noted that the vintage paperback film tie-in was also something of a precursor to VHS. It provided a way for a fan to relive a favourite film, and of course the often spectacular and frequently lurid paperback cover art lured you in just like those wonderfully gaudy VHS covers would a decade later. Film soundtracks were yet another way to bring the cinematic experience home for you to enjoy at leisure (and some companies would even release special narrated soundtracks, retelling the film’s story).
When home video started to really penetrate into the suburbs of Melbourne around 1982, it was considered something of a status symbol to have one of those big clunky top-loaders perched on top of your TV set. Much like colour television when it was first introduced in Australia in 1975, not everyone could afford to jump straight onto the home video bandwagon. But it took a foothold and started expanding exponentially, and by 1984 if you didn’t yet have a VHS (or Beta) player to call your own, you at least had one or two friends who did.
I was still a student at that time, having just started a tertiary orientation program at CIT (Caulfield Institute of Technology, now part of Monash), and the meagre study allowance given to me by the government was not going to let me afford the luxury of a home video set-up. I was also the youngest of five kids and the only one still living at home, so my parents were not going to fork out the expense for a new entertainment system when there was barely no family left at home to enjoy it. Thankfully though, I did have a classmate named Andrew who was two years older than me, we became fast friends and I soon discovered that his parents had retired and lashed-out on a VHS player to help keep them entertained. They also loved to gamble, and with gambling still illegal in Victoria at the time, they would take a trip across the border pretty much every second weekend, in order to play the pokies in New South Wales.
Andrew’s house in Bentleigh quickly became my second home, whenever his parents disappeared for the weekend I would head over there and we would go and prowl all the local mum & dad video stores, scooping up anything we could find that had a lurid title or box cover, then retreat back to his house for marathon VHS sessions, almost always fuelled by beer, bongs and burgers (with the occasional pizza). These were great days, before books like The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and Incredibly Strange Films had been published, so most of the films we rented were blind choices, there was no reference works to consult regarding them (America, of course, had a lot of fanzines like The Splatter Times and Sleazoid Express, but they were next to impossible to find in Australia at the time). It was during this period that I became acquainted with so many notorious films for the first time: I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), Night of the Zombies (1980), Basket Case (1982), and of course the infamous Bloodsucking Freaks (1976), which left our collective jaws agape.
There were also the favourites that I had already seen at the cinema, but which now became regular re-watches on home video. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Squirm (1976) were two of these. Not to mention films that I had already been aware of but was too young to see when they played the local cinemas and drive-ins, movies like I Drink Your Blood (1971) and Massacre at Central High (1976), both of which became personal favourites once I had the chance to finally see them.
The library at CIT also had several small media/conference rooms that by this stage had a TV and VHS player set-up in each one. It was mostly used for when teachers wanted to show us educational videos or movies (I remember our psychology teacher screening Themroc (1973), as well as a trippy old 70s animated short on Carl Jung and his theories on the stages of life). Occasionally, a few of us would book one of the media rooms for a couple of hours, on the pretext of study, and sit in there and watch videos we had rented. I first got to see The Evil Dead (1982) this way, and when each of us had to give a lecture as part of our psychology course, I chose to talk about the effects of horror films on the psyche, and made the whole class sit through a screening of the (thankfully cut, in retrospect) local Video Classics release of Maniac (1980). My talk was aimed at exploring the ways in which “fun” horror movies, like The Evil Dead and the Friday the 13th series, affected us differently that the more sleazy and grimy, depressing films like Maniac and I Spit on Your Grave. I don’t know how successful I was, but I did get a pretty good grade and I’m sure the rest of the class were thankful for the chance to kick back for a couple of hours.
In many ways, things did change quite a bit when I finally did get my own VHS player a couple of years later (sold to me for $100 by a relative who had upgraded). My film viewing became more solitary, as I was now able to watch what I wanted when I wanted, and had more of a chance to actually study the films and branch out towards other genres. I was still studying but had also landed a part-time job at St. Kilda Video, which was located on the corners of Acland and Barkly Streets (where the Big Mouth Café now stands). It was a dream job, though the small shop (which had first opened in 1982) was already starting to feel the financial pressure of the big chain stores that were popping up in the area. But I was getting paid (though not much) for watching movies in the shop all day and being able to take home whatever I wanted that hadn’t been rented out by the time I closed shop. St. Kilda Video became yet another form of film school for me, and I stayed there until the place finally succumbed in late-1988. I had no idea the place was even closing, I turned up for my Friday night shift as usual only to find the owners (an accountant and his wife) and the manager (a great, and sadly late, true pom named Colin) boxing up the videos and tearing down the shelving.
In retrospect, I wish I had thought to ask if I could take home some of the promo stuff that was stored out back and in drawers, but I was in too much shock to even think of it. I was only a casual worker so I had no severance pay coming to me, though the owner did at least pay me for that last shift that I was supposed to do, and also told me I could take home any five videos from the shop. It was better than nothing. The five I chose: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blood Feast (1962), Massacre at Central High, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder (1979) and the uncut release of The Toxic Avenger (1984). I still have, and treasure, all of them except for The Toxic Avenger, which I stupidly left behind at the house of girl I was trying to impress.
The nineties quickly arrived and by then pretty much
every home in Australia had a VHS player, if not two or more. More and more
product became available, and the direct-to-video format helped keep the
shelves packed. It was still a great time, but the home video revolution had
become much more homogenised and corporate in the space of just ten years.
Sadly, a lot of the smaller, independent mavericks were pushed out of the
business, and then VHS itself would become a virtually obsolete home
entertainment format ten years later, while the rise in streaming services and
the affordability of DVD and Blu-rays would push the video stores off the map
It’s sad that it’s over, but the memories remain entrenched, and it was a wild and fun ride while it lasted.
Saturday, July 3, 2021
Last night's viewing. A pretty good 2015 documentary by Colin Hanks which looks at the foundations, success and ultimate downfall of Tower Records, the iconic American record store chain which was founded in Sacramento in 1960 and eventually spread across the US and several foreign markets, before the death of physical media and rise of the internet and file-sharing sites led the company into bankruptcy 45 years later. It's a familiar story shared by many other large music and video retailers in the past 15 years, but ALL THINGS MUST PASS manages to draw the viewer in thanks to engaging anecdotes from the curious assortment of people who operated the business, as well as the great collection of old photographs, archival film footage (including a young Elton John going on one of his regular Tower Records sprees) and radio ads (including one by John Lennon), and just the simple nostalgia of documenting a retail ritual that has become virtually obsolete but was a vital part of the discovery and obtainment of music for many fans over many decades.