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Short story: I’ve been in and out of the hospital since April of 2010, and fell way behind on my reviews. On top of that I received more screeners than I’ve ever seen in my life. To get through this pile and get on with being more on time, I’ve decided to create a series of short reviews, divided by the studio that released each disc. Hopefully these will still give readers a good view of my opinion of each film and disc. First up is exploitation experts Blue Underground.

Blue Underground Wrap-Up

Vigilante


Vigilante is a good sample of the era’s post- Death Wish/ Dirty Harry crime thriller cheapies that filled out the grindhouse, and that audience’s need for vengeful bloodshed. Director Bill Lustig, who owns this Blu-ray’s production company Blue Underground, opts for something between the utter reality of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, or his own Maniac, and the more fantastical feel of similar films like Carpenter’s Escape from New York, or Walter Hill’s The Warriors. This in-between spacing makes for a less consistent film than Lustig had achieved with Maniac. As per the usual Lustig hedges his bets with an outstanding cast including Fred Williason, Robert Forster (who’s great), Woody Strode, and Joe Spinell. Worth seeing, but Lustig has some problems with suspense, and the film feels longer than it really is. PS: This is an uncut version of the film.

This Blu-ray  release looks better than generally expected based on the film’s grittiness, and the last DVD release, which was only ok. The whole thing is a bit muddy, but overall details are very impressive from front to back, even during those really dark moments that looked like missing frames on the old 1:33 VHS (the film was shot in 2:35:1, and that is how it’s presented here). Colours are vibrant enough when required (mostly bits of wardrobe), and night time shots are cleanly blue hued. Daytime shots are a little grainier, but nothing oppressively bad. Lustig is good enough to actually point out some of the more substantial clean up for this transfer on the first commentary track. The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track is a bit wasted on the mostly simple centered soundtrack, but the John Carpenter-esque score sounds perfect, large, bassy, and covers all the channels. Extras include one informative and entertaining commentary from Lustig and co-producer Andrew W. Garroni, an additional, older commentary with Lustig and actors Robert Forster, Fred Williamson and Frank Pesce, trailers, TV spots, a radio spot, a promotional reel, and a still gallery.

Blue Underground Wrap-Up

Maniac


Maniac represents director, and Blue Underground’s owner, William Lustig’s big leap onto the grindhouse scene, and represents the start of his obsession with the dirtiness of the dark corners of New York City. Usually Maniac is grouped with the ‘80s slasher boom, but it’s really something different. The violence isn’t fun, the atmosphere is oppressive beyond the usual roller coaster style of most slashers, and the killer is the centric character. The fact of the matter is the atmosphere is actually enough to turn off most slasher fans, who often prefer to ignore it in favour of Friday the 13th sequel. Maniac wallows in sweaty a New York Hellscape, worthy of other classic relentlessly sleazy horror/dramas like Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock, though it’s still secondary to the slightly more tame and mainstream friendly Taxi Driver, which is still the more unsettling picture to my mind. Lustig’s lack of practice behind the camera actually goes a long way towards creating a suffocating atmosphere, and lead actor Joe Spinell is so naturally slimy it’s hard to remember he’s not a psycho, rather than a successful ‘70s character actor. Maniac isn’t a fun film to watch, and it doesn’t capture magic on film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and other ‘70s raw shock horror, but every horror fan needs this one under their belt. For the record: Maniac isn’t as graphic as its reputation states, it’s just very upsetting.

The 16mm film means that even after years of fine tuning on Blue Underground’s part, Maniac was only ever going to look so-so compared to their 35mm Italian horror releases. The whole print is rife with grain in all lighting, contrast and details are relatively soft, and the film itself changes brightness from frame to frame. Most viewers aren’t going to be able to tell the difference between this and the previous anamorphic DVD release. There are times the transfer steps above SD quality, funnily enough usually during the gore scenes, which special effects man Tom Savini often partially shot himself (according to legend), and tends to light his set more harshly. The sound is minimal, especially when the Maniac is indoors, which was done purposefully to create a contrast between his world and the real New York City. Most of the dialogue and sound effects are wasted on the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, but the oddball musical score sounds fantastic, and earns its surround and stereo channels.

The extras start with two commentary tracks. The first features Lustig with co-producer Andrew W, Garroni, and the second features Lustig, make-up effects artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli and the star’s assistant Luke Walter. The facts come hard and fast – Lustig and crew were working with Dario Argento on Inferno and used some unused helicopter footage, Tom Savini got a nose job, the head shot was created by flat out blasting a fake head with a loaded shotgun, etc. Both tracks are good. The first track is newer, and a little more fact heavy, while the second track is a bit more fun, thanks a lot to Savini’s presence. Disc one featurettes include ‘Anna and the Killer: Interview with Caroline Munro’ (HD, 13:00), ‘The Death Dealer: Interview with Tom Savini’ (HD, 12:00), ‘Dark Notes: Interview with Composer Jay Chattaway’ (HD, 12:00), and ‘Maniac Men: Interview with Songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky’ (HD, 10:30). The disc also features trailers, TV spots, radio spots, and ‘Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2 Promo Reel’ (HD, 7:00). Disc two starts with ‘The Joe Spinell Story’ (SD, 49:00), and also features a large collection of publicity interviews, a still gallery, and a ‘Gallery of Outrage’ collection of angry news items.

Blue Underground Wrap-Up

Salon Kitty


Director Tinto Brass is best remembered for his work on the notorious Caligula (a film which begs for a release of a true director’s cut), but was well known throughout Europe and the Grindhouse for his many softcore/hardcore exploits, including All Women Do It and Frivolous Lola. Just before Caligula Brass dabbled in the popular Nazisploitation sub-genre with Salon Kitty. Salon Kitty exists in the same art house meets Nazisploitation arena as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom, featuring a plot which duels with the non-linear, abstract editing, and impressionistic images of nude bodies juxtaposed with the grotesqueries of slaughtered pigs, hunchbacked dwarfs, amputees, and the revulsion of the bourgeoisie at their most extreme. This is the kind of film, as is most of Brass’ early filmography, begs the audience to read into the visuals, even if there’s usually nothing more to images of floppy private parts than meet the eye. This is higher quality and higher brow entertainment than most Italian Nazi flicks, and the long, obvious political discussions hold more weight due to a lack of goofy graphic violence (which is both a plus and a negative, depending on the viewer). Unfortunately, Salon Kitty is well over two hours long, making it a bit of an endurance test for anyone except Brass’ most loyal fans. As an ode to Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (which along with Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS started the whole Nazisploitation phase), it could be a good, 90 minute movie, but Brass bogs it down with too many subplots, and a ridiculously serious streak.

The 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray image is inconsistent in detail and grain levels, but mostly stands up to the studio’s established high standards. Overall there is quite a bit of fine grain, and there’s a lack of overall detail thanks to Brass’ love of soft focus lenses. There are zero compression noises or artefacts, and colour quality dictates a higher level of vibrancy than DVD is capable of. The colour occasionally shares the uncanny consistency of post-release coloured black and white film, which only adds to the film’s bizarre imagery. This disc includes both the original Italian audio and the dubbed English audio, and both are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio. There’s really no ‘cineaste’s’ reason to choose one track over the other, since both are dubbed, and most of the lead cast appears to be speaking English anyway. The English track features more full-bodied effects work, and is generally louder than the Italian track, which is generally pretty soft. I suppose I’d recommend the English track for this slightly higher fidelity, even if it features a bit more distortion at high volume levels (‘s’ sounds being a major issue). The viewer will be forced to watch some scenes in Italian, as the more graphic stuff was cut from English language prints before dubbing. Extras include ‘Inside Salon Kitty: Interview with Tinto Brass’(14:50, SD), ‘Designing Salon Kitty: Interview with Production Designer Ken Adam’ (18:00, SD), two trailers and three radio spots.


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