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Arrow Review Round-Up

Microwave Massacre

(1983 – shot in the late ‘70s)
Disgruntled construction worker Donald (Jackie Vernon) unwittingly stumbles upon a solution to the two major problems in his life – his nagging wife and his lack of decent meals – when, one night, he bludgeons his better half to death with a pepper grinder in a drunken rage. Thinking on his feet, Donald dismembers the body and sets about microwaving the remains, which turn out to be rather delicious. Trouble is, now, he has a taste for human flesh that needs satisfying… (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

In the classic age of the mom & pop video store the horror section beckoned young and impressionable viewers with revolting, terrifying, and sometimes hilarious box art. The most striking visuals tended to belong to Thriller, Regal, Magnum, and Wizard Video, whose ‘big box’ releases were adorned by gory illustrations that rarely reflected the content of the cheap, usually foreign-made movies within. But there were memorable examples from other companies, such as Shapiro Glickenhaus’ Frankenhooker (1990) tape, which was fitted with an audio chip that shouted “Wanna date?!” when a button was pressed. Midnight Video’s big box release of Wayne Berwick’s Microwave Massacre (1983) was particularly evocative for young Gabe, because its detailed and satirical art evoked John Pound’s work on the then-hot Garbage Pail Kids collectible cards. The actual film within the box is about as junkie as you might expect in terms of its over-the-top humour, dopey T&A, casual racism, not-so-casual misogyny, and painfully old-fashioned jokes, but it is slightly better-made than the majority of its STV horror-comedy brethren. The photography is colourful and the production design rises above the average Troma movie. That said, it’s still an acquired flavour of intentionally crude filmmaking – one that demands tolerance for meandering dialogue, painfully amatuer performances, and terrible pacing. Those with a taste for this type of trash are in for a sleazy treat, while the rest of us may be driven slowly insane by its droning lack of content. It’s like the paint drying on a wall of gore/sex comedies.

The only DVD version of Microwave Massacre I’ve ever seen in person came from Anthem Pictures (Wikipedia claims there is a Japanese DVD, but I can’t find any box art with a studio name). It was a full-frame release. This Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack represents its first HD and anamorphic releases in any territory (it has been released only a day apart in the US and UK). Confession: because I have only seen it on VHS and it is such a cheapo hunk of junk, I assumed that Microwave Massacre was shot either on video or 8mm. 16mm tops. My second assumption was that its intended aspect ratio was 1.33:1, since it had basically gone straight-to-video (note that imdb.com also lists the OAR at 1.37:1). It appears I was wrong on both accounts. In fact, this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer (taken from a 2K scan of the original camera negative) is actually quite handsome, making this grimey little Z-movie look surprisingly cinematic or at least something that could’ve been released in a grindhouse theater without raising too many eyebrows. The original mono sound is presented in lossless 1.0 LPCM audio. There are some pops and snaps throughout (usually during reel changes), but the overall sound quality is clean and surprisingly dynamic for a cheap single-channel mix. The crisply-mixed dialogue exhibits only slight hiss and Leif Horvath’s keyboard & rock-infused music is pretty loud, if not inconsistent (sometimes everything dips briefly into muddiness).

Extras include:
  • Commentary with writer/producer Craig Muckler, moderated by Mike Tristano – This new track features a hyperactive, super-happy Muckler, whose almost unhinged behind-the-scenes anecdotes are barely hemmed in by a bemused Tristano (who I assume is the same Mike Tristano known for his weapon props company?). Things start pretty typical, but ‘typical’ doesn’t seem to be the writer/producer’s speed. Throughout the giggle-fits, there’s quite a bit of information. And, given the super-slow pace, this track may be the preferred way to experience the film.
  • My Microwave Massacre Memoirs (21:07, HD) - This retrospective featurette includes interviews with Muckler, director Wayne Berwick, and actor Loren Schein. All three begin by discussing growing-up around show business types (Berwick’s dad, Irvin, directed The Monster of Piedras Blancas, 1959, and was Muckler’s film school teacher), earlier employment in the industry, developing Microwave Massacre, finding funding, casting Jackie Vernon (the voice of Frosty the Snowman!) and family friends, editing, and the five-year struggle with distribution.
  • Image gallery
  • Trailer


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Slugs

(1988)
The townsfolk of a rural community are dying in strange and gruesome circumstances. Following a trail of horrifically mutilated cadavers, resident health inspector Mike Brady is on the case to piece together the mystery. He soon comes to a terrifying conclusion – giant slugs are breeding in the sewers beneath the town and they’re making a meal of the locals! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Director Juan Piquer Simón is mostly remembered as Spain’s answer to Italian schlock-meisters, like Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei. While he definitely thrives in the realms of goofball exploitation, he has a much better success rate than his spaghetti splatter rivals. His technical direction would probably be best described as ‘competent,’ but he instinctively gives audiences more of what they want, be it the cheesy Saturday matinee antics of his (non-documentary) feature directing debut Where Time Began (Spanish: Viaje al centro de la Tierra; aka: The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1977), the violent extremes of Pieces (Spanish: Mil gritos tiene la noche, 1982), or the charmingly cheap special effects of The Rift (1989) – which is, believe it or not, a better underwater monster movie than George P. Cosmatos’ Leviathan and Shaun S. Cunningham’s DeepStar Six (both also 1989). Pieces is his ‘masterpiece’ (or pièces de résistance, yuk yuk yuk), but the squirmy, gory creature feature Slugs comes a close second for pure cheese and grindhouse audience accommodation. It’s basically everything we should expect from an exploitation monster movie (like most post-1975 nature-run-amuck movies, Slugs is a Jaws rip-off at its core), but so rarely get. Instead of one or two cheer-worthy moments spliced among 90 minutes of tedium, Simón keeps the comedy rolling and doles out an increasingly elaborate gross-out sequence every 10 to 15 minutes. The cast is surprisingly good, too, especially considering the soap opera silliness that Simón and co-writers Ron Gantman & José Antonio Escrivá give them to speak between slug attacks.

Slugs (Spanish: Slugs, muerte viscosa) was released on DVD in many countries, but the only options for English speakers were anamorphic discs from Anchor Bay in the US (later re-released by Image) and Boulevard Entertainment in the UK. For the film’s Blu-ray debut, Arrow has scanned the original film elements in 2K and presents it in 1080p and its correct 1.85:1 framing (the DVD was framed at 1.85:1, but had been zoomed, so lots of information was missing from all four sides). There is some minor print damage here and there, as well as a few upticks in grain during darker scenes (though some of this may be old-fashioned dirt), but the majority of the footage is consistent and neatly preserved. Details are tightly knit and the colours are much punchier than those from the faded, over-brightened DVD releases. Perhaps the palette skews too warm at times, but not at the risk of the lush greens and deep blues.

The original mono sound is presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. I assume that, like many other foreign language films made for international grindhouse distribution, parts of it were shot without sound, but the bulk of the dialogue-heavy scenes appear naturally recorded on location. The more obvious ADR’d moments are attached to more actiony and outdoor scenes, though there are some actors that were clearly dubbed for every scene. Regardless of how they were mixed, the performances and incidental effects are consistent and not entirely flat. Slugs might be a junkie movie, but composer Tim Souster went all out for its Herrmann-meets-’70s cop show theatrical score. Apparently, the symphonic themes were performed by none other than the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with author Shaun Hutson – The first commentary is with the writer of the source novel. With a little help from moderator Michael Felsher, a bemused and modest Hutson discusses his writing career, his inspirations, Slugs’ surprise success on paperback, and the process of a Spanish film adaptations. This track is a big surprise and enormously entertaining.
  • Commentary with filmmaker Chris Alexander – The second track features fan and the writer/director of Blood for Irina (2012) and Queen of Blood (2014). Alexander is a bit more jokey and nostalgia-driven than I personally prefer from an ‘expert’ track, but he did plenty of research before recording and fills the space with loads of behind-the-scenes information between gags.
  • Here’s Slugs In Your Eye (7:39, HD) – In this interview, actor Emilio Linder talks about his career as an actor (due to laws stating that foreign film productions needed to hire a certain percentage of local talent, he was often cast in American, English, and Italian films), his working relationship with Simón, and the special effects processes behind his on-screen death by slugs.
  • They Slime, They Ooze, They Kill: The Effects of Slugs (10:46, HD) – Special effects artist Carlo De Marchis looks back on years of effects work in big and small budgeted movies and reveals the secrets behind the wide array for tricks employed throughout Slugs.
  • Invasion USA (11:52, HD) – Art director Gonzalo Gonzalo talks up the underrated skills of Simón, De Marchis’ special effects, and Slugs’ production/set design.
  • The Lyons Den (21:00, HD) – Production manager Larry Ann Evans discusses the film and gives a tour of the various existing locations.
  • Trailer


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Vamp

(1986)
Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) want to make the right impression at college, so they devise a plan to get them into the best frathouse on campus. They head to the After Dark Club where they want to find a stripper for a party their friends won’t forget; instead they find themselves among vampires led by Kinky Katrina (Grace Jones)! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Richard Wenk’s Vamp tends to be absorbed into the larger cluster of vampire comedies from the mid-’80s and forgotten, outside of the participation of the incomparable singer/songwriter/supermodel/all-around badass, Grace Jones. Revisiting it for the first time since the VHS days, I realize that it is better than I had given it credit for. It’s funnier than Howard Storm’s Once Bitten (1985), a more clever indictment of youth culture than Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987), and the trashy albino gang that threatens our heroes throughout the film are a fun precursor to the nomad biker vampires of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). Wenk’s plot might have been an influence on the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Bob Gale/Robert Zemeckis when they wrote From Dusk ‘Till Dawn and Bordello of Blood, both 1996 releases that feature secret vampire strip clubs that feed on low-life drifters (apparently, this part of the plot was producer/co-writer Donald P. Borchers’ idea). The biggest pluses are the full-bore ‘80s insanity of the vivid, increasingly surrealistic neon lighting schemes and Jones’ no-holds-barred performance. However, Vamp falls short in terms of its bulky pacing (the first act manages to be a total slog), ambivalent identity (sometimes it’s a frat bro sex comedy, sometimes it’s a wacky Grace Jones vehicle, other times it’s a vampire gangster spoof...), and underwhelming horror elements. The vampire and gore effects are fun enough, but there aren’t any scares or credible threats.

Wenk’s directing career has been brief and spotty. Vamp is one of only two feature films that he completed as a solo director, the other being a Andy Garcia/Andie MacDowell romantic comedy Just the Ticket (1999). Otherwise, he worked on group projects, a short, and a single episode of Sweet Valley High (1994). His bigger contributions have been as a writer and, in fact, the 2010s have been very good to him, including co-writing gigs on The Equalizer (2014), The Magnificent Seven (2016), and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016).

Vamp enjoys a decent-sized cult following, but was not very consistently released/re-released on home video. In the US, it was put on VHS via New World Video, R1 anamorphic DVD via Anchor Bay, and on R2 UK DVD from Arrow (the same SD transfer showed up on German and Italian discs). Arrow released the first Blu-ray option in 2011 and that same transfer showed up on German BD from ‘84 Entertainment. This is a completely new transfer, made from Lakeshore Entertainment’s HD scan (there is no more information other than that). I don’t own the older release for comparison sake, but can see that it was framed at 1.85:1, while this release has been opened up a bit to 1.78:1 (it’s possible that this is the same transfer that was used for Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray). It also appears that the original disc was darker than this one, which might be to its advantage, because the new scan looks sort of washed out at times. Grain levels are thick, but not unnatural, colours are rich – especially the aforementioned neons that slowly take over the palette – and the textures are relatively complex, aside from purposefully soft focus moments. This isn’t one of the studio’s best releases, but is nice enough to please stateside fans that have no other HD option. UK fans can probably hang onto their older Arrow release, though, assuming they aren’t excited about the new extras (see below).

The original mono sound is presented in LPCM 1.0 and sounds just fine. Outside of the relatively dynamic/bassy music – both score and popular music interludes – the mix is thinly layered and pretty flat. Fortunately, the lack of compression keeps distortion at a minimum and the vocal clarity is tight. Jonathan Elias’ music is a forgettable, but pleasant mix of keyboard pop and Jerry Goldsmith-inspired theatricality.

Extras include:
  • One of those Nights: The Making of Vamp (44:30, HD) – This new retrospective documentary features director Richard Wenk, cinematographer Elliot Davis, and stars Robert Rusler, Dedee Pfeiffer, Chris Makepeace, Billy Drago, and Gedde Watanabe. The subject matter revolves around Wenk’s script (which, again, was based around producer/co-writer Borchers’ stripper vampire idea), casting, Grace Jones’ involvement changing the film’s dynamic, amusing anecdotes from the set, the vibrant photography, and the ridiculously short post-production period (three weeks).
  • Behind-the-scenes footage (6:41, SD) – Raw, shot-on-video rehearsal footage of Jones practicing her vampire attack on Wenk.
  • Dracula Bites the Big Apple (22:03, HD) – Wenk’s 1979 short film shares some DNA with Vamp in terms of being a comedic take on vampire lore, but it plays out more like an Airplane! style spoof of the Hammer Dracula tradition than anything else. The musical sequences are a nice surprise.
  • Blooper reel (6:14, HD)
  • Trailers and TV spots
  • Image gallery

The 2011 release did have some different extras, including the commentary track with actor Robert Rusler (moderated by critic/author Calum Waddell), an introduction by Rusier, and interviews with Wenk, Pfeiffer, and co-writer Donald P. Borchers.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays 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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