All the Sins of Sodom

78/100

Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.

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Vibrations

62/100

ex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.

Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...

Liquid Sky

77/100
Liquid Sky

Say what you will about Liquid Sky, there’s no other movie like it. Shot largely in a nightclub that feels warmed to sweltering by big costumes and body heat and a crowded penthouse apartment with a killer view of the Empire State Building (and a UFO on the porch), it mashes up an annoyingly slack New Wave fashion show with a New York sci-fi story about aliens who crave heroin and/or human orgasms cooked up by frisky Russian immigrant writer, director and co-editor Slava Tsukerman.

Co-screenwriter Anne Carlisle, playing the dual roles of aspiring “Mayflower stock” starlet Margaret and drugged-up downtown asshole Jimmy, gets to act opposite herself in a few scenes (including one where she gives herself a blow job) and is generally considered the MVP on screen, but I’ve always preferred the big-eyed Paula E. Sheppard, who dominates the film’s midsection as Margaret’s erotically aggressive performance-artist girlfriend, Adrian. (Her salacious delivery of the film’s single best line — a response to the age-old question, “What’s in the box?” — never fails to leave me convulsing with laughter.)

The film seems to have been edited in a blender, which only adds to its cachet as outsider art, but it’s remarkably well photographed and, once the story takes hold, the nihilistic shenanigans on screen ascend to the status of bleak, hilarious auto-parody. Still, It’s hard not to feel for the verbally and sexually abused Margaret as Carlisle drops her punk posture and shifts into broken-hearted mode, donning a wedding dress and climbing onto the roof, completely junked up, in search of some kind of completion. It’s a wicked fairy tale set among sad, smacked-out freaks and outsiders, doling out cruelly unequal helpings of sweet and sour, bliss and despair. But there’s a beating heart at the center of it all and, sometimes, poetry.

Blood Diner

52/100

So bad it’s good? I wouldn’t go that far. But Blood Diner is definitely something—a no-frills pastiche of 1950s disembodied-brain sci-fi potboiler, 1960s Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie, 1970s cannibal-cuisine flick, and early-1980s buddy-cop movie. I’m tempted to say it stitches together a Frankenstein’s patchwork of genre movies because it has no vision of its own, but that’s too glib. If nothing else, 20-something Asian-American director Jackie Kong (Night Patrol) loves L.A.: she wrapped all of those genre influences around a love letter to the city’s underground music scene circa 1987, casting punk rockers and rockabilly singers as extras, bit players, and movie stars in a story about a pair of pretty-boy sibling serial killers who run a popular foodie destination on Hollywood Boulevard where the vegetarian dishes are, unbeknownst to patrons, boosted by the presence of human flesh in the recipe.

Conceived as a direct sequel to the late H.G. Lewis’s Blood Feast (partly in hopes he would come out of retirement to direct the film himself), Blood Diner‘s characters’ names have been changed, though the new story picks up roughly where the old one left off. It opens with young brothers Michael (Rick Burks) and George (Carl Crew) being visited by their Uncle Anwar (Drew Godderis), who makes a quick detour in his flight from the cops to gift them with ancient Egyptian amulets before running back outside to be gunned down by police. Long story short, the boys grow up, disinter their uncle’s body from the grave, put his brain in a jar, and follow its spoken instructions. Uncle Anwar’s brain has them stitching together female body parts to create a vessel into which the goddess Sheetar (Tanya Papanicolas) may be summoned following a suitable “blood boo-fay.”

batter-up

The tone is comfy, taking every opportunity to wink at the audience. Burks and Crew play their characters as jackass Angelenos whose pleasant handsomeness masks the American psychos lurking underneath. (One minute, Burks is asking his date if she’s ever heard of “battered girlfriends;” the next, he’s slathering her in an egg-and-flour mixture and shoving her head in hot oil.) The police duo assigned to investigate the murders is a mixed bag: while the guy is played very broadly by Roger Dauer as a sexed-up schlemiel who gets slugged by his boss on the regular, his straight woman, detective Sheba Jackson (LaNette La France, never heard from again after this movie), has cute bangs and a devastating side-eye. She should have had her own franchise of dopey serial-killer movies.

It’s lucky that a woman was at the helm of Blood Diner (a “PMS Filmworks” production), as Kong’s interpretation probably went some way towards diffusing the misogyny inherent in a script about men who take orders to seduce and murder everyday “tramps” in order to pave the way for the return of a mythical goddess. It’s not that Kong backs off on the film’s gonzo nature; rather, she embraces it and shapes its energy. When Uncle Anwar starts reminiscing fondly about his life in crime, Kong cuts in footage of old black-and-white “roughies” featuring scenes of sexual violence set to good-timey polka music as flashbacks—acknowledging her own movie’s place in the continuum of exploitation cinema while simultaneously criticizing its problematic nature. There’s a fun scene where one of the Tutmans interrupts a couple having sex, dispatches the man, and then comes at the nude woman with an axe. Instead of running and screaming or simply falling under the blade, she assumes a martial arts stance and beats the hell out of him. And during the big rock-concert set-piece, Sheetar comes back to life unexpectedly, revealing a chomping vagina dentata running vertically from between her breasts down to her belly button–all the better to chew your dick off.

sheetar-pointsjpg

Yes, Blood Diner is unfocused, with too many amateurish performances, but it is committed to its premise, and it somehow manages to fill 88 solid minutes with a new idea lurking around every corner. Topless aerobics! Zombie attacks! A wrestler called Little Jimmy Hitler! Think of it as outsider art. It’s not well-made by any traditional yardstick of quality, but it is simultaneously possessed of genuine wit, feminist sensibilities, and a weird aesthetic integrity.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Blood Diner debuts on Blu-ray as part of Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series with a straightforward HD transfer that gives it an adequate but certainly not flashy revival. The box copy indicates that it was “restored from original vault materials,” and they have been handled pretty conservatively. The picture here is a little on the flat side, with low contrast and muted colors. If I generally wonder if Blu-ray images are cranked to pop too much, this is the rare transfer that could have used a tad more oomph. Dust-busting and grain-reduction don’t wreck the presentation but are definitely in evidence; the video bitrate runs at an average 27 Mbps, though I’d like to see what it looks like with less noise reduction at around 35 Mbps. The frame is opened up slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio to an HDTV-friendly 1.77:1. (As with the concurrent Chopping Mall, the packaging misidentifies the AR as 1.85:1.) Sound quality of the 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is quite good. There’s not a lot going on in the monaural mix, but what’s there is clear and well-balanced. Much of the dialogue seems post-sync’d and is rendered with especially good definition. The selections from Wagner are clearly detailed, and the rock music from the climactic club scene has a decent, bassy thump that suggests a live-concert environment.

Extra features are fairly extensive, starting with Michael Felsher’s five-part, 65-minute documentary “Killer Cuisine: The Making of Blood Diner“. In part 1, screenwriter Michael Sonye (a.k.a. Dukey Flyswatter from L.A.-based horror punk band Haunted Garage) and Jimmy Maslon recount the movie’s origins—basically, Sonye and Maslon had bonded over a shared love of Blood Feast, to which Maslon owned the rights. After trying and failing to interest Lewis in directing, they cut the budget substantially in hopes of getting a green light. In part 2, Kong talks about coming onto the production after the success of her previous film, Night Patrol, got Vestron interested in finding a script for her. She reveals that Blood Diner was made on a $330,000 budget, and says the bond company was betting against her being able to complete it at all. Part 3 features interviews with actors Carl Crew, Roger Dauer, and Drew Godderis that add color commentary on how the project came together. (Rick Burks would probably be here, too, but the poor guy passed away in 1989, at the age of 29.) Part 4 is an interview with composer Don Preston vis-à-vis his synth score, and part 5 lets cinematographer Jürg V. Walther have his say about what it takes to make a good-looking movie on a tight schedule and a low budget.

For whatever reason, none of these interviewees appear on screen together. That’s the source of some frustration because they sometimes contradict each other. Specifically, Kong claims (both here and in her audio commentary) that the script she was given was “as serious as a heart attack” and that she had to work to inject humor into the proceedings. Yet Sonye relates a story about calling Maslon up to discuss his ideas for the film. He claims that if Maslon didn’t laugh—if the ideas weren’t inherently funny—he didn’t use them. It’s possible that Kong was just on a completely different wavelength from Maslon and Sonye when it came to humor, but there is a fundamental disagreement here on who was responsible for the picture’s overtly comic tone. Sonye also mentions that he had hoped to play a role in the film but was barred from the set by Kong, so there’s that.

I’m not trying to throw shade in Kong’s direction. I’ve sat through too many audio commentaries from directors of low-budget 1980s horror movies who talk about their film like it’s an unloved child to have any quarrel with someone who’s as proud of her genre work as Kong is of Blood Diner. Although it’s true that her yak-track covers much of the same ground as her 20-minute documentary segment, it’s nice to be able to see what she’s referring to when she describes a dolly move or makes the point, repeatedly, that she transcends her budgetary limitations in part by making sure shots have a foreground, a mid-ground, and a background to suggest the depth and complexity that’s often missing from movies made on the cheap. She also discusses her penchant for planning every shot in detail, down to drawing lighting diagrams in order to ensure the truck is loaded with exactly the lights that are required for specific effects, rather than a generic indie-film roll-out. I especially like her idea to go out unrated, which Vestron apparently embraced, as opposed to trimming this and that in an attempt to appease the MPAA. I don’t know how many indie directors have the talent or the temperament to be as demanding in this regard as Kong is, but it sounds like pretty good advice to me.

Also on board is an 8-minute HD interview (dating to 2009) with Eric Caidin, the owner of Hollywood Book & Poster Co., who had a hand in Blood Diner‘s development and who died unexpectedly last year. The film’s lightly comic trailer, featuring food critic “Phil A. Mignon” directing adventurous diners to dangerous eats at Blood Diner, is included in two versions (both HD), along with a pair of derivative TV spots and three unrelated radio ads. Closing this joint down for the night, a slideshow of production stills clocks in at 5:34.

Chopping Mall

40/100
Killbot!

Chopping Mall is not the shopping-center slasher-movie its title suggests. Here’s what you really need to know: It includes a scene where a woman clad in light-blue Playboy panties runs screaming through the spacious halls of the Sherman Oaks Galleria in a hail of laser fire, chased by a killer robot resembling a cross between a Dalek from Doctor Who and Number Five from Short Circuit. The opening sequence features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in a cameo as their Paul and Mary Bland characters from the cult classic Eating Raoul. The always-game Barbara Crampton, who had just shot Re-Animator, takes her top off. And, like the maraschino cherry on top of a soft-serve strawberry sundae, the great character actor Dick Miller plays a crusty janitor who trash-talks one of the malevolent tin-can tyrants like a Jet giving the finger to Officer Krupke. Continue reading

Meat

57/100

Philly-based distributor Artsploitation Films has just pulled a Dutch film called Meat (aka Vlees, 2010) out of the freezer, and it’s kind of a doozy. Produced by Amsterdam-based co-directors Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs (she’s the writer, he’s the cinematographer), Meat is a nonlinear murder mystery that starts out as day-in-the-life middle-aged sexual intrigue, morphs briefly into one of those young-people-and-discotheques Euroflicks, and finally turns into a post-modern police procedural. It’s not much of a whodunit, but it’s a pretty good example of a 21st-century grindhouse film, serving up pungent elements of low-budget horror and surrealism with erotic aromatics and a permeating abattoir stench. But I don’t want to oversell it. Just think Luis Buñuel crossed with Jörg Buttgereit. Continue reading

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland

10/100
Say what you will about the original Sleepaway Camp—you can’t accuse it of lacking ambition. All writer-director Robert Hiltzik had to do to sell a movie with that title in that era was cast a bunch of teenagers in a wan Friday the 13th knock-off and splash some Karo blood around in the woods. Yet he made something dark and unique, with queer undertones: the first gender-identity horror film. The story goes that Hiltzik’s script for a follow-up was rejected by producer Jerry Silva, who thought it was too dark. Instead, he forged ahead with plans to shoot two overtly-comic sequels back-to-back in Georgia under the direction of local talent Michael A. Simpson. A 24-year-old writer named Fritz Gordon got the gig on a recommendation from U.S. distributor Nelson Entertainment.

And so two sequels were made—Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (hereafterSCII and SCIII)—that put transsexual serial killer Angela Baker back in action. In the original Sleepaway Camp, Angela was an orphan boy who had been forced to live as a girl, but in Gordon’s narrative, Angela is all woman, having undergone a sex-change operation in the interim. Pamela Springsteen (yes, the Boss’s sister) plays her as a cheerfully-extroverted prude with a mean streak working under an assumed surname as a camp counsellor who remedies moral transgressions by “sending campers home” in a variety of ways, many of them involving blunt-force trauma. Both films are populated by an assortment of 20-somethings playing teenagers, with fading stars—Walter Gotell (known for multiple appearances in James Bond films) in SCII and Michael J. Pollard (an Oscar nominee for Bonnie and Clyde) in SCIII—making what amount to extended cameo appearances as ineffectual adult supervision for the hormone-addled supporting characters.

While both movies are unimaginative no-budget crapfests, SCII is the better film by a good margin, simply because it looks like everyone involved had a pretty good time making it. The sense of fun is infectious, even if the execution is lousy. Angela clocks her first victim over the head just five minutes in, so there is no suspense about the identity of the killer. From there, SCII lurches along from scene to disconnected scene, sprewing clichés drawn from slasher movies and teen sex comedies, interspersing gore, comic skits, female nudity, and pretend sex, along with explicit homages to pop culture of the time—not just horror icons Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Leatherface, but also “Brat Pack” actors who have characters (Mare, Demi, Judd, Emilio, et al) named after them. The overarching aesthetic seems to be ‘1980s sitcom,’ including the equivalent of a clips show partway through: Angela has a bad dream that involves recapitulating earlier scenes in slo-mo, as the filmmakers struggled to fill their contractually demanded 80 minutes of screentime.

Springsteen is OK in the central role, though no one who saw these films could be surprised to hear they vaulted her into a successful career in a completely different field. (She’s known these days as a photographer.) But the MVP of SCII is Valerie Hartman, a blonde with ’80s hair and a sexually-assertive attitude who seems to be alone among the cast members in understanding exactly what sort of movie she’s appearing in. As Ally, Hartman has three nude scenes, two of them full-on sex scenes—a challenge she embraced without self-consciousness, despite the fact that her partner seems to spend one of those scenes vigorously licking her navel. Unfortunately, her character’s exhibitionism codes her as a slut, which leads to the requisite mean-spirited scene in which Angela shoves her face into a latrine full of, yes, shit and leeches, which are lovingly depicted in her death. (“This is a good example,” opines Gordon on the accompanying audio commentary track, “of a girl getting what she deserves.”) At that point the film is barely halfway over, and none of the surviving characters is half as lively as Ally was.

Still, the perfunctory Sleepaway Camp II is a white-knuckle thrill ride compared to the lethargic Sleepaway Camp III. Everyone was tired by the time they shot this sequel—Gordon wrote the script during the two weeks the previous film was shooting—and it shows on screen. The picture opens with a bizarrely out-of-place pre-credits vignette in which Angela runs down a victim on the streets of Atlanta by chasing her into an alley with a Mack truck. The encounter is ridiculously off-message for a Sleepaway Camp movie. Sure, it explains how the by-now-notorious serial killer sneaks into yet another summer camp (identity theft!), but the last thing these movies need is more backstory—not to mention what must have been by Sleepaway Camp standards an insanely expensive siphoning of money away from everything else in the production.

Once the film actually arrives at Camp New Horizon, it introduces two separate groups of campers: the good kids and the delinquents, named after characters from The Brady Bunch and West Side Story, respectively. Among the key players are Riff, a black kid who likes hip hop and movies filled with “tits and blood,” and Cindy, a Southern-fried racist who calls him “a dirty nigger.” Unpleasant, yes, but it’s an excuse for Angela, later on, to hoist Cindy up to the top of a flagpole, then drop her 20-something feet so that she lands on her head, hard. (That’s how this movie thinks.) Also on hand, for some reason, is the father of one of Angela’s previous victims, as well as mild-mannered redhead Marcia (Tracy Griffith, half-sister of Melanie), who becomes the Final Girl in time to join a limp catfight with Angela at the climax.

Like the previous film, SCIII features gore effects by Bill “Splat” Johnson, but when the movie got tagged with an X rating by the MPAA, most of his work hit the cutting-room floor. That’s a genuine shame, because the vim and vigor of a movie like this is found in its gruesome punctuation. The most graphic scene that remains in the R-rated version is probably the one where Angela shoves a lit firecracker up a sleeping camper’s nose and blows his face off. Most of the death scenes have been trimmed to get a rating, and violent grace notes, such as a woman’s head getting shredded in the blades of a lawnmower and a boy’s arms getting torn from his torso by a pickup truck, are missing entirely.

Outside of those kinds of so-so gore effects, the Sleepaway Camp series remains of interest, barely, due to its protagonist’s outsider status. It’s a shame that Gordon and Simpson didn’t have the wherewithal back in 1988 to do something really interesting with the franchise, like cast an actual transgender actress or at least attempt to explore Angela’s internal life in some emotionally credible way. Instead, they mostly paint her as an overly chipper sex- and fun-loathing scold with a special contempt for women. At one point in SCIII, the filmmakers see fit to strip one of their young actresses to the waist and have her roll around in a tent with Herman (Pollard), a counsellor easily twice her age. Although the predatory Herman is clubbed to death with nary a word to shame him, Angela can’t help berating the girl’s semi-nude corpse: “It’s a good thing you’re dead, because in a couple of years your breasts would have been sagging something horrible.” That’s not my idea of a good time, but at least these movies get something right: they accurately capture the feeling of being stranded for a few hours with terrible, terrible assholes.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Though Scream Factory’s Blu-ray editions of Sleepaway Camp IIand III aren’t quite stellar, they’re plenty good enough for these films, offering generally clean 1.85:1, 1080p transfers from elements in good condition. Print damage, both positive and negative, is visible but not distracting, and the films have a grainy look appropriate to their era and the conditions of their making. Bitrates are similarly generous, set to an identical 36 Mbps for the pair. If anything, Sleepaway Camp III looks a little better than II; it features a lot of daylight exteriors that are vividly presented, with deep autumnal colours providing a rich backdrop. The color overall seems more saturated, too, especially in interior shots, where Sleepaway Camp II can be a bit drab. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono tracks are adequate but nothing to write home about; the movies’ mixes are not especially demanding, though some of the dialogue recording has a somewhat hollow-sounding midrange that had me pressing the subtitle key once or twice. The heavy-metal songs that play under the credits sound OK.

The discs recycle the 2002 DVD releases’ audio commentary with director Michael A. Simpson, screenwriter Fritz Gordon, and superfan John Klyza, who runs the officially-recognized fansite for the Sleepaway Camp franchise and is almost as interested in breasts as he is in the films themselves. These yakkers are about as informative as you could hope, without a lot of dead air, and give the movies some replay value for fans as the filmmakers talk about how clever they thought they were being with an attempted takedown of slasher clichés. (“Fritz’s scripts gave us permission to laugh,” says Klyza, whose main critical theory is that these Sleepaway sequels inspired the Scream films.) Most notably, they reveal some of the their thoughts when it came to Angela’s character, whom they tried to portray as sexually confused by suggesting her latent attraction to women. I didn’t really catch it but, sure, that’s possible. More to the point, Gordon explains—with a bit too much satisfaction—that “every Sleepaway Camp has a slut that gets it toward the end.”

Special features are generous, with the new 54-minute HD documentary “A Tale of Two Sequels” presented as a two-parter split across the discs. It covers much of the same ground as the commentaries but with additional voices in the mix. Along with Simpson, participants include the films’ very articulate DP, Bill Mills, and editor, John David Allen, along with a few actors from either sequel. (Many of them seem to have faded back into obscurity in their native Georgia environs.) Springsteen, unfortunately, is nowhere to be seen. The most interesting part is probably the stretch towards the end where SCIII‘s run-in with the MPAA ratings board is discussed, and Allen laments his lack of foresight in failing to save the original film elements for the cut scenes so that they could be presented in something resembling mint condition rather than as grainy outtakes from a VHS copy of the workprint.

That’s a good segue to the very best supplement found on either of these discs: Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland includes that VHS-quality workprint in its entirety. I would actually recommend, with a straight face, that newcomers to these films watch this X-rated version of SCIII in abominable quality instead of the more pristine HD transfer. Not only are the unedited gore scenes outrageous enough to earn the movie probably an entire extra half-star, but the junky image quality is more flattering to the flick’s shitty-TV-show aesthetic. And, face it: if you’re going to spend 80 minutes watching Sleepaway Camp III, you may as well see the whole thing, even if it doesn’t look so pretty.

Other features on the Sleepaway Camp II platter: “Abandoned: The Filming Locations of Sleepaway Camp II & III“, a 15-minute tour of the now-overgrown YMCA camp where the films were shot; 13 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage (with commentary by Simpson) mainly covering make-up FX, save for some glimpses of the costume department and craft services at work; an amateurish “short film” (really, about 30 seconds’ worth of fan footage) titled “What Happened to Molly?” that belongs on YouTube, not here; a two-minute promo (up-res’d from SD to 1080i) aimed at getting video stores to stock the cassette version; and a seven-minute gallery of production photos, promotional stills, and other ephemera.

Filling out the Sleepaway Camp III disc are a whopping eight minutes of behind-the-scenes footage covering the garbage-truck sequence, again with commentary by Simpson; 19 minutes of deleted scenes (basically, this is all of the kill sequences from the workprint strung together at their full length, and thus duplicates material that appears elsewhere); another three-minute VHS promo, this one basically one-liners from the film playing over heavy-metal music; a four-minute stills gallery; and another one-minute fan-service short, this time with actor Mark Oliver appearing as his character Tony from the film in the present day.

Finally, these BDs come in packages with reversible cover imagery, the florid new art by Nathan Thomas Milliner commissioned specially by Scream Factory backed with cheesy promo images from the original releases, which had very little to do with the films they were promoting but have fairly high nostalgia value for anyone who spent a lot of time perusing rental shelves in the late 1980s.