Arrow Video February Reviews (US - BD RA)
Gabe's running a little late with Psychomania and We Are the Flesh...
The Living Dead are a delinquent biker gang, fond of causing havoc on British roadways and making out in graveyards. Gang leader Tom (Nicky Henson) also has a Satanist for a mother, and, when he discovers the secret of immortality, the name of his motley crew takes on a more literal meaning…(From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Don Sharp’s Psychomania (aka: Death Wheelers) is a classic time capsules of ‘70s British cinema. Yes, it was made in reaction to the American brands of biker and hippiesploitation movies, but everything Sharp and co-writers Arnaud d'Usseau & Julian Zimet do with the material – up to and including dippy acoustic guitar breaks, dopey platitudes, and laissez-faire sense of plotting and pace – is purely and completely Britonesque. Thanks to the wild popularity of British Invasion music, Stanley Kubrick’s transformative black comedy, A Clockwork Orange (1971), and (probably) Hammer Films’ own delightfully awkward attempts at capitalizing on the emerging hippie movement, British horror films were regularly beset with counter-culture elements during this time. Some would cleverly apply late ‘60s/early ‘70s standards to prototypical, bygone English terrors, such as Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Others, like the Dr. Phibes movies (1971, 1972), Pete Walker thrillers, and Psychomania, gleefully submitted their skewed and simplified versions of modern youth.
The members of the Living Dead biker gang exhibit all the hallmarks of ‘70s Brit juvenile delinquency – mop-top haircuts (women and men are impossible to tell apart from the back), self-centeredness, emotionally voilitility, a childish sense of humour, laziness, and a callous disregard for the status quo. Their wild actions were designed to delight youth, while their lack of sympathy emboldened the previous generation’s fears of moral decay. As a movie, Psychomania is a lesser example of these tropes and only really as good as Sharp’s direction. The veteran director of The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), Curse of the Fly (1965), and Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966) really knows how to shoot biker youth wreaking havok. His use of fog and slow-motion is especially spellbinding, though the gang’s monogramed jackets and skull-masked helmets, designed by Jean Fairlie and provided by Lewis Leathers, remain the film’s most enduring legacy.
If memory serves, Psychomania had a hazy copyright history during the early days of home video. From what I can gather, there were at least seven VHS releases in North America alone. It’s DVD history was a little more straight-forward, though it still bounced around quite a bit, including a non-anamorphic disc from Geneon and anamorphic discs from Severin and Image. Its Blu-ray debut was released via none other than the British Film Institute in the UK (naturally). Arrow is using a version of the same BFI remaster for their new Blu-ray. The process began with an unusual mix of elements – damaged colour reversal internegatives, a faded 16mm print, and a newly discovered set of 35mm black & white separation preservation masters. The process of turning those B&W separations (which were scanned in 2K) into a full colour transfer is a long, involved one that is actually covered in the disc’s extras (see below). Those reversals and prints were then, I assume, used to help grade the final product so that it might match the original release as closely as possible.
The 1.66:1 transfer is as impressive as such an intensive process would imply, which is an impressive feat, not only due to the condition of the material, but the soft, foggy quality of cinematographer Ted Moore’s photography. Edges are rarely sharp by design, though the contrast of the B&W masters has helped delineate the detail among the fuzzily focus, fine grain (that seems accurate, based on the film’s age, et cetera), and various artefacts. That said, some scenes are too high contrast and dark for their own good. Print damage is minimal, including some white specs and short black scratches. The colour quality is somewhat desaturated, but not as much as you might expect from a transfer that required a complete grading overhaul. The warmer hues bleed a bit and some edges exhibit haloes, which seem to be the result of slightly misaligned strips, rather than compression issues (though, I suppose that’s probably not possible, considering the way it was remastered).
The original mono sound was also taken from the 35mm separations and is presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 sound. The mix is low-key and occasionally quite flat, but the clarity is respectful throughout. There are no major pops or crackles and the most important elements, namely dialogue and incidental effects, are clean and the louder moments (motorcycle chases, for instance) have some aural depth/roundness. John Cameron’s rockin’ score is a major highlight that sets a funky mood for the spooky moments and propels the action with wah-wah guitar and groovy organ. In actuality, the best parts of the movie are those where Cameron’s music is aggressively laid over drowsy footage of the Living Dead riding around the English countryside (and dying, in many cases).
Extras, which are all holdovers from the BFI Blu-ray release, include:
- Interview with actor Nicky Henson (13:57, HD) – An interview with the star of the film, who made a name for himself in cult horror via Witchfinder General, Clive Donner’s Vampira (1974), as well as Psychomania. He heaps heavy praise on the stunt crew as he giggles through memories of the production.
- Return of the Living Dead (25:02, HD) – This retrospective featurette is comprised of interviews with cast members Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder, and Rocky Taylor.
- Sound of Psychomania (9:06, HD) – An interview with composer John Cameron, who discusses his head-nodding score over a ridiculously short timeframe.
- Riding Free (6:52, HD) – Songwriter Harvey Andrews talks about his song, “Riding Free,” which is performed during the first of several funeral scenes.
- Hell for Leather (7:52, HD) – A look the film’s show-stopping costumes with Derek Harris, the owner of Lewis Leathers, the clothing company that supplied them.
- Remastering Psychomania (1:44, HD) – A quick glance at the restoration process.
Some of the BFI’s extras did not carry over, including a subtitle trivia track compiled by none other than our friends, the Wilson Bros. Too bad!
We Are the Flesh
A young brother and sister, roaming an apocalyptic city, take refuge in the dilapidated lair of a strange hermit. He puts them to work building a bizarre cavernous structure, where he acts out his insane and depraved fantasies. Trapped in this maddening womb-like world under his malign influence, they find themselves sinking into the realms of dark and forbidden behaviour. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
First-time feature writer director Emiliano Rocha Minter’s psychedelic, allegory-heavy We Are the Flesh (Spanish: Tenemos la carne) is the latest in a line of modern Mexican horror films. I hesitate to call this growing popularity a new ‘renaissance’ (the preferred hyperbole of cultural critics) for the genre in the region, but the influx of movies, like Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are (Spanish: Somos lo que hay, 2010), Adrián García Bogliano’s Here Comes the Devil (Spanish: Ahí va el diablo, 2012), Henry Bedwell’s Darker Than Night remake (Spanish: Más negro que la noche, 2014), and the anthology México Bárbaro (2014), as well as We Are the Flesh does seem to signify a return to the ‘60s and ‘70s period, where uniquely Mexican horror was a staple of any aficionado's viewing diet.
Arrow’s advertising equates We Are the Flesh to the neon-soaked, impossibly nihilistic grime cinema of Gaspar Noé. While there is a similarly ‘modern’ obscenity at work here, I’m more inclined to compare it to the older sexually-charged and metaphor-driven movies of Walerian Borowczyk and Alejandro Jodorowsky (who Arrow also names), as filtered through the lens of digital photography. Like those filmmakers, Minter deals in heavy-handed social metaphors and frames them with the grotesqueries of bodily functions and the minutiae of inefficient procedures. The open scene, for example, is a sort of grimy, DIY version of Jodorosky’s The Holy Mountain’s (1973) ‘shit into gold’ alchemy sequence. Viewers who’re stunned by this shocking imagery might not even notice the fanatically textured operations of Minter’s world. Everything appears to a methodical purpose and every purpose hides another mystery. The tiny $400k budget would seem limiting, given the emphasis placed on the complex alien environment, but so much of the film resembles an experimental and very confrontational stage play that the solitary confinement of the cave-like, dumpster-chic location fits the director’s unusual ambition. Also note that the characters in the film are seen building their own stage, which is itself another very Jodorowsky-ish thing.
If I were to complain about We Are the Flesh, I would mention that its concepts can’t really sustain the 80-minute runtime. Minter’s twisted allegories are applied early in the process, then drawn-out during the middle section of the movie. Though I’m sure he was very careful in choosing what to include in his final edit, the tone and overall effect is choppy. Narrative structure serves little practical purpose here, but plotting is still given relative precedent during the more sluggish sequences. I assume that, shorn of this fat and completely engulfed by the fanatical (unsimulated) sex, violence, and hallucinatory photography of the most striking sequences, We Are the Flesh would make a searing 45-minute short. As is, it ends up building to a climax that the audience is too exhausted to really appreciate.
Being a brand new production, We Are the Flesh did not require Arrow’s usual full-bore digital remastery, though Minter did supply the masters to the company himself. The footage was shot using Red Epic digital cameras and is presented in various aspect ratios, including about 1.90:1 (the most common), 2.20:1 (very briefly), and 1.33:1. The key component here is colour quality, because just about every frame is beaming with outrageous digital grading. Some scenes are eerily monochromatic, some build up layers of saturated hues, and others are more subtly desaturated. These colours are consistent and, when required, super vivid, all without any notable compression artefacts. The photography also strikes a difficult balance between super-sharp textures and hazy gradations, sometimes within the same frame. A lesser transfer would be flecked with edge haloes and banding effects, but the most you’ll see from this disc are small dots of digital grain, which was probably present in the original footage. Gamma/contrast levels are patently harsh as well, but few sequences are overcome with crushy darkness or blooming whites.
We Are the Flesh is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM stereo, both in its original Spanish language. It seems that, despite the independent nature and lower budget, the 5.1 track was designed by the filmmakers, so I’m not quite sure what use the stereo track is. The sound is designed to match the bizarre imagery with some purely abstract sound, but it gets even more milage out of extreme pitch and volume choices. Otherwise normal noises are drawn out and made frightening with overlapping techniques that also exhibit impressive directional movement. The ever-wandering camera ensures that even the softest industrial sound continues to shift across the room. It’s often difficult to separate Esteban Aldrete’s dissonant score from the nightmarish ambience of the surreal environments, which suits the oppressive tone just fine. The more definitively musical moments feature loads of LFE enhancement.
- Dentro (12:39, HD) – A black & white short by Minter that hints at his future obsession with mysterious procedures.
- Videohome (10:55, HD) – A second, even more abstract short by Minter that also follows young men through a series of methodical events.
- Virginie Sélavy on We Are the Flesh (36:21, HD) – The film critic/Electric Sheep and BFI writer explores the film, its themes, it’s influence (Jodorowsky, the Marquis de Sade, and Theatre of Cruelty innovator Antonin Artaud, in particular), and the meaning behind its extreme imagery.
- Emiliano Rocha Minter (18:20, HD) – The director discusses his process, inspiration, casting (he considered casting actual siblings to engage in incestual on-screen sex…), and praises his crew.
- Actor Noé Hernández (20:20, HD) – The ‘elder’ actor of the piece talks about his character and his difficult performance.
- Actress María Evoli (13:09, HD) – The lead actress also talks about her character, her audition, rehearsals, and her fellow actors.
- Actor Diego Gamaliel (13:30, HD) – Again, the interviewer asks generally the same questions about character, audition, rehearsals (he was not an actor, so he underwent more training), and his opinion of the final film.
- Behind-the-scenes still gallery
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays, then 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.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 21st February 2017
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 2.0 Mono English (Psychomania); DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, LPCM 2.0 Spanish (We Are the Flesh)
Extras: See Individual Releases
Easter Egg: No
Director: Don Sharp, Emiliano Rocha Minter
Cast: George Sanders, Beryl Reid, Nicky Henson, Noé Hernández, María Evoli, Diego Gamaliel
Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy and Horror
Length: 201 minutes
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