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Arrow Review Round-Up

Return of the Killer Tomatoes

(Release Date: June 28, 2016)
Ten years on from the Great Tomato War, mankind lives in fear of another uprising by the waxy red menace. Meanwhile, Professor Gangreen (John Astin) sets out to pursue his own evil ends by creating a burgeoning army of tomato militia men, who, somewhat conveniently, look just like regular men. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

In 1978, writer/director John DeBello made a super low budget, self-explanatory monster movie spoof called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Its reputation grew slowly with the advent of home video and it eventually spawned an entire mini-franchise, including three sequels, an animated series (called simply Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which ran from September 1990 through November 1991), three different video games (a 1986 version for 8-bit computers, a 1991 version for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991, and a port of the NES version for Game Boy), a comic book from Viper, and even a Greek-produced rip-off/homage called The Attack of the Giant Moussaka (Greek: I epithesi tou gigantiaiou mousaka, 1999). The first of the sequels, Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988), was in large made by the same production crew, including co-writers Costa Dillon & Stephen Peace, and got a slightly larger distribution deal via New World Pictures. DeBello didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel for his second movie, but didn’t entirely rest on the laurels of his first movie, either. Murderous fruit is only funny so many times. Return of the Killer Tomatoes is even more self-aware than its predecessor and its mile-a-minute pop culture spoofery is matched with a relatively charming central story. There’s even a smidge of social commentary wedged between genre satire and stale, PG-friendly sex jokes. It is a sort of tonal and conceptual companion piece to Jay Levey’s Weird Al vehicle, UHF (1989), minus the heart and plus a baby-faced George Clooney. Or a Troma movie without the constant stream of vulgarity.

Return of the Killer Tomatoes has had a number of DVD releases in many regions, including one from Anchor Bay Entertainment in the US. Every single one of those DVDs were cropped to 1.33:1, so Arrow’s 1080p release doesn’t only represent the first HD version, but the first home video to be correctly cropped at 1.85:1. The results are impressive, pushing the footage to its limit in terms of detail without over-sharpening the edges. The grain has a slightly noisey quality that causes some discolouration (specifically the ever-present white backgrounds), but the gradations are still clean for the most part – I didn’t notice any posterisation and banding is limited to a handful of background shots. The ‘80s pastel and acrylic palette is punchy as well, save a few washed out shots. The mono soundtrack sounds decent in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio, though it does seem that the original material was not in the greatest shape. This is a dialogue-heavy track that depends on cartoonish sound effects over more natural noises and the results are uneven in terms of volume and fidelity. Usually, the inconsistency is clearly the result of ARD mixing. The derivative, but catchy synthesizer/doo-wop music (credited to Neal Fox & Rick Patterson) is more stable and exhibits decent depth for a single-channel mix.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with co-writer/director John De Bello – This brand new commentary is moderated by Red Shirt Picture’s Michael Felsher, who does typically good work while interviewing Bello on the ins and outs of the production. The discussion rarely lags and is never repetitive.
  • Hangin’ with Chad (17:20, HD) – Star Anthony Starke talks about his career and experiences making Return of the Killer Tomatoes in this Arrow-exclusive interview.
  • Stills gallery
  • Trailer
  • TV Spot


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Suture

(Release Date: July 5, 2016)
The wealthy and self-assured Vincent (Michael Harris) meets his blue collar half-brother Clay (Dennis Haysbert) at their father’s funeral and is struck by their similarities. He decides to murder Clay and take his identity, only Clay survives the assassination attempt with no memory and is mistaken for Vincent. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Following a series of well-regarded shorts, experimental filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel made their feature-length debut, Suture, in 1993 with the help of Steven Soderbergh (who was undergoing his own creative slump, following sex, lies, and videotape in 1989). Suture is a wistful love letter to the more experimental side of 1960s crime cinema. McGehee & Siegel have stated that they were influenced by paranoid Hollywood movies, specifically John Frankenheimer’s black & white thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966), as well as similarly monochromatic Japanese New Wave releases, specifically Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another (Japanese: Tanin no kao, 1966). Suture’s homage to the existential themes and surrealistic images of these singular classics set it apart in a sea of generic 1990s American crime movies. However, Suture is also a sneakily esoteric little movie and its impassive absurdity (for example, the film’s insistence that actors Michael Harris and Dennis Haysbert look nearly identical) might rub prudent viewers the wrong way. Greg Gardiner’s impeccable black & white photography is reason enough to recommend it to neo-noir fans, but its subversive approach to crime story tropes, affected performances, and deliberate pacing make it more of a challenge than Quentin Tarantino’s punchier, mainstream homage pieces from the era – films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), that would define the tone and timbre of Suture’s most direct Hollywood competition. Despite a slightly saggy middle-section that makes me think it might work better as a short subject (whenever the story wanders away from Clay’s experiences, it struggles with conventional storytelling), I enjoyed the original approach of this particular genre throwback.

Suture was released by MGM on non-anamorphic DVD as part of their Avant-Garde Cinema line, which gives Arrow’s 2.35:1 Blu-ray debut an extra leg up in the video quality department. To top it off, this 1080p transfer was sourced from a brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative. The stark black & white footage requires the dynamic contrast and well-defined gradations that this image provides. There are some minor edging artefacts during the odd, flatly-lit shot, but these (along with other minor flecks) seem film-based. While the super hi-res scan certainly delivers in terms of detail and overall clarity, the transfer itself would’ve be completely worthwhile if someone had scrubbed the image of texture with DNR. The 35mm grain structure appears quite accurate and gives the transfer a sheen of authenticity – as if Suture really was a late ‘60s release. The original stereo sound has been preserved in LPCM 2.0. This is a simple and stark mix for the most part. Environmental ambience and basic effects work is purposefully thin, setting a clean canvas for clear dialogue and the occasionally louder, stylistic moment (there are a lot of explosions used to represent the protagonist’s mindset). There are minor volume inconsistencies that appear to be tied to the way performances were recorded. Cary Berger’s rarely-used, often discordant and percussive music is matched with a number of pop, country, and operatic standards.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with writer/directors David Siegel & Scott McGehee, moderated by Steven Soderbergh – Soderbergh utilizes his interviewing skills (which he has utilized on his own commentary tracks before) to lead the filmmakers through a long and thorough discussion about the making of the film.
  • Lacerations: The Making of Suture (32:30, HD) – This new retrospective documentary, produced exclusively for Arrow’s release, includes interviews with the directors, actor Dennis Haysbert, cinematographer Greg Gardiner, editor Lauren Zuckerman, and production designer Kelly McGehee. It covers the director’s short films, their cinematic and genre influences, trying to find funding with a strange conceit in mind (a black actor and a white actor being identical), casting, filming in the depressing desert of Phoenix, AZ, the difficulties and advantages of an independent production, music, and the restoration of the original footage.
  • Three deleted scenes with optional directors’ commentary (3:00, HD)
  • Birds Past (27:30, HD) – Siegel & McGehee’s first short (released in 1989) concerns two young Hitchcock fans who embark on a road trip to Bodega Bay along the path set by Tippi Hedren in The Birds. It sort of blurs the lines between documentary and fiction by juxtaposing colour video footage of ‘people on the street’ interviews, in which non-actors are asked to recall the events of The Birds with (mostly) B&W footage of the actors on their adventure.
  • Stills gallery
  • US and European trailers


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The Swinging Cheerleaders

(Release Date: July 5, 2016)
Kate (Jo Johnston), an undergraduate at Mesa University, goes undercover as a cheerleader for her college newspaper in order to expose ‘female exploitation in contemporary society.’ But, instead of oppression, she finds love, friendship, and a bigger fish to fry: corruption in the football team, headed up by the coach and his pals. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Arrow continues the process of amassing every single Jack Hill movie under their label (following Blood Bath, Spider Baby, Pit Stop, and, in the UK, Coffy and Foxy Brown) with the writer/director’s pseudo-satire of the sexy cheerleader exploitation tradition, The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974). Released just after the writer/director’s influential women in prison ( The Big Doll House, 1971; The Big Bird Cage, 1972) and blaxploitation ( Coffy, 1973; Foxy Brown, 1974) classics, and just before his girl gang masterpiece, The Switchblade Sisters (1975), The Swinging Cheerleaders has been somewhat overlooked in the shuffle. Despite its lack of serious violence (a couple decent fist fights aside), it certainly fits the ‘girl power’ model Hill had been developing and would continue refining. He even manages to satirize a bit of left-wing political ideology. The problem is that this particular female-centric power struggle doesn’t have much of a hook and the episodic storytelling (basically any scene that doesn’t revolve around Kate and her dissertation/lesson learned) is listless, verging on boring. Fortunately, even when he’s coasting, Hill writes likable characters (he used the pseudonym Jane Witherspoon and his co-writer, David Kidd, went by Betty Conklin) and is good with amateur actors. It’s too bad Jo Johnston didn’t make any more movies, because she’s actually pretty good. Also to Hill’s credit, the women really are the center of the movie and, despite being paraded around in their skivvies, they are usually in control of their sexuality and the film doesn’t judge them for promiscuity (to the contrary, it judges the men for being jealous). For the record, even though it’s structured kind of like a porno, the sex is strictly of the softest-core variety, perhaps even softer than the women in prison movies.

The Swinging Cheerleaders was released in the US by Anchor Bay/Starz exclusively as part of their Cheerleaders Collection (it also included Paul Glickler’s The Cheerleaders,1973, and Richard Lerner’s Revenge Of The Cheerleaders, 1976). This Blu-ray (and solo DVD) debut, framed at the appropriate 1.66:1 aspect ratio, was scanned in 2K from the original 35mm negative and the results are pretty dynamic for a film of this age – especially one that was shot using Hill’s patented run-and-gun techniques. Grain structure seems accurate, though it does cake up a bit and turn ‘snowy’ during the darker shots (the opening titles are particularly gritty, in part because Hill was using stock footage of a football game). Details are strong and elements are nicely separated from front to back. Colours are vivid with the exception of some blown-out skin tones and skies during heavily sunlight shots. The original mono soundtrack is presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. There are some weird noise reduction things going on when loud music (some credited to composer Gerald Sampler, some traditional college fight songs) overlaps the action and effects start to pulse, but this is usually connected only to roaring crowd noise during football games. Otherwise, the dialogue and incidental effects are free of distortion and are no flatter than any other low-budget mono track.

Extras include:
  • Commentary by writer-director Jack Hill – This is not a reissue of the commentary Hill recorded for Anchor Bay, but a new commentary recorded exclusively for this release. It is moderated by American Grindhouse (2010) director Elijah Drenner, who keeps Hill on task with questions about the production. Not that Hill really needs the prodding, because he comes prepared with enough info to keep the discussion moving with behind-the-scenes factoids and unrelated, but fascinating anecdotes.
  • Interview with Hill (8:10, HD) – The writer/director further discusses his career in this companion piece to the archive interviews, as well as similar interviews on Arrow’s other Jack Hill releases. He also briefly talks about finding the original Swinging Cheerleaders negatives.
  • Archive interview with cinematographer Alfred Taylor (10:20, SD) – This career retrospective talk with one of Hill’s favourite collaborators was originally recorded as part of one of Spider Baby’s DVD releases, apparently.
  • Archive interview with Hill (10:40, SD) – The director discusses Swinging Cheerleaders with cult personality/musician Johnny Legend on this shot-on-video interview.
  • Q&A at the New Beverly Cinema (19:20, HD) – Hill and actresses Colleen Camp & Rosanne Katon take audience questions following a screening.
  • TV spots


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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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