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Scream Factory Collected Reviews

Phantom of the Opera (1989)

(release 2/17/2015)
An aspiring opera singer finds herself transported back to Victorian-era London – and into the arms of a reclusive, disfigured maestro determined to make her a star. The silver-throated Christine (Jill Schoelen) enjoys success through the arrangements of her new lover (Robert Englund)... until she realizes that he has been committing unspeakably grisly murders in her honor and won't stop until he's completed his masterpiece... in blood! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Of the maybe one dozen feature-length versions of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, Dwight H. Little’s 1989 version is really only notable because it was the most horror-centric adaptation. It’s also the one that features Robert Englund in the title role and released at the top of his Freddy Kruger celebrity. The script, by workhorse screenwriters Gerry O'Hara and Duke Sandefur, was very much built around the Freddy persona and the advertising materials were so engaged in reminding audiences who Englund was that some people were confused as to if Phantom of the Opera was some kind of Nightmare on Elm Street spin-off. Or at least that’s what I thought when I was 10 years old.

This The Phantom of the Opera smells like concession and settlement. I don’t have to be familiar with the behind-the-scenes story to know that someone involved wanted to do a romantic period piece that stuck closer to Leroux’s source material, while someone else wanted to modernize the story. The compromise was a period piece that awkwardly pauses for gory murder scenes and is flanked by goofy bookends that take place in 1988. The results are spotty – sometimes it truly feels like a proper late slasher-era take on a Hammer or Roger Corman costume drama, but the detached nature and dips in narrative draw the 93-minute film out to a point that it becomes impossibly boring. Little is evidently hampered by budget and late ‘80s trends, but goes for broke when shooting haughty costumed drama on stagey baroque sets. As long as he’s focusing on undermining the stuffy stuff with smoke, mirrors (literally, in many cases), and gory special effects, he does very well. The bloody kill scenes are also well done, including energetic camera moves, convincing practical effects, and a whole lot of Dutch angles. The scene where Englund takes on a trio of would-be muggers would fit nicely into Sam Raimi’s Dark Man, which was released the next year. If only it all fit together.

Phantom of the Opera was first released on DVD in 2004 from MGM. It was a barebones ‘flipper’ – anamorphic 1.85:1 on one side, 1.33:1 open matte on the other. Scream Factory was beaten to the punch on Blu-ray by a RB German release from Infopictures. Because MGM tends to strike their own HD transfers for use on TV and digital screening, I assume that both Infopictures and Scream’s transfers are comparable (though I don’t know enough about Infopictures to guess how compressed it is). This transfer matches the other MGM catalogue transfers that Scream hasn’t taken the time to ‘fix,’ i.e. it has a number of minor print artefacts (white flecks and scratches) and has been a shade over-sharpened, leading to slight edge haloes. However, Phantom of the Opera has better element separation, richer colours, and tighter blacks than the set average. Grain levels are persistently heavy, but never overwhelming or uneven. The uptake in detail from the anamorphic DVD isn’t breathtaking, but it’s enough to deepen the texture of the occasionally gorgeous wide-angle compositions.

Note: This is the same R-rated version of Phantom of the Opera that has been circulating since it was first distributed into theaters. Though many websites around the internet (including imdb.com) have a list of cuts made, an uncut version has never been released.

This Blu-ray comes fitted with a brand new 5.1 remix (not available elsewhere) and the original 2.0 stereo track. Both tracks are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The remix is actually quite tasteful. Dialogue and basic sound effects are shifted to the middle channel, while the music and a couple of ambient sounds are spread further into the stereo and surround speakers. Misha Segal’s score sounds better here than on the 2.0 track thanks to the spread and some minor LFE enhancements – though the music is sometimes limited by the lack of a complete orchestra. The symphonic tracks are a blend of actual strings (probably a quartet), catalogue elements (classical arrangements that Segal didn’t compose), and synthetic keyboard melodies. Of these, the real instruments always sound better. Some of the opera scenes have issues with balance between score and singing, but the same problems tend to arise in the stereo version as well. Neither track is particularly loud.

The all-new extras include:
  • Audio Commentary With Director Dwight H. Little And Actor Robert Englund
  • Behind The Mask: The Making Of The Phantom Of The Opera (37:40, HD) – A solid retrospective featurette that includes a number of cast & crew interviews. Everyone remembers the film fondly, but is also honest about its many shortcomings. Curiously, it seems that my theory that the filmmakers were disagreeing about tone isn’t entirely true and that the patchy qualities were born of mutual creative frustration. It includes some stills from the uncut versions of the gore scenes and discussion of the unproduced Phantom of Manhattan script that was used for the modern-day bookends.
  • Theatrical trailer, TV & radio spots
  • Still gallery


 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews



Scream Factory Collected Reviews

New Year’s Evil (1980)

(release 2/24/2015)
Diane ‘Blaze’ Sullivan, the host of a nationally televised punk-rock show on New Year's Eve, is receiving calls from a mysterious killer who tells her of his plans to off someone at midnight in each of America's major time zones… and she will be the last. (From Scream Factory’s original synopsis)

The most curious thing about Emmett Alston’s unremarkable holiday-themed slasher, New Year’s Evil, is that it wasn’t made prior to 1980. The filmmakers were clearly inspired by the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, but they released their film a little too close to Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (there were just over six months between the two movies) to have been fully swept up in the holiday slasher whirlwind of 1981. New Year’s Eve seems like a bottom-of-the-barrel calendar event to build a body count movie around. But Alston and his colleagues were ahead of this particular curve and likely reaped the benefits of the slightly dry season that capped off 1980. Alston is a typically confident B-movie director. He’s terrible with actors (and some of his actors are terrible) and exposition, but exhibits a flair for putting together the murder sequences (especially the scenes that involve the killer messing with elevator controls). He and cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman have fun with the sleazy ‘80s fashion and find some fun camera angles during the less dialogue-heavy sequences.

The earlier release date also meant that New Year’s Evil was sent to a slightly more lenient MPAA. After the fervor that Friday the 13th stirred, superior slashers, like George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine and Tony Maylam’s The Burning, were cut to ribbons to appease tightening censorship. Unfortunately, Alston doesn’t really cash-in on his luck and New Year’s Evil is pretty tepid in the gore department. Almost all of the murder occurs off or below frame. Ironically, these relatively bloodless kills somehow seem even more misogynistic and mean-spirited than their more gruesome counterparts. Yet, New Year’s Evil is too dull to be genuinely disturbing. With gore and fun both at a premium and the plotting sluggish and predictable enough to put even the most ardent slasher fan to sleep, the moderate entertainment value is found in the killer’s goofy costume changes, Kip Niven’s wide-eyed performance, and the occasional trash appeal of the silly, soap opera story concepts (which includes lines like ‘You…castrated me…and that wasn’t nice!’).

New Year’s Evil didn’t have an official DVD release until MGM started their manufactured-on-demand service. But it did get a lot of airplay on television, especially Turner Classic Movies (for some reason), who actually aired it in widescreen. Scream Factory’s 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray is, of course, a sizable upgrade over the DVDr MOD disc and another typical MGM scan. The low budget and muddy lighting puts the image quality below some of the similar transfers, but, with these photography issues aside, it might be one of the better-maintained images in the Scream/MGM canon. Print damage is minimal, save a few vertical scratches, most of which are limited to the opening credits (I also caught one big blob around the 16-minute mark). Details are crisp, despite occasionally uneven grain levels, and the high sharpness levels only create slight haloes in dark, wide-angle shots. Colour quality is relatively natural and quite vibrant where ugly ‘80s fashions and blistering stage lights are concerned.

The original mono has been preserved for this release and is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once again, the limitations are almost all the fault of the original material, which was adequately mixed at best. The lack of compression makes for clean dialogue tracks and helps maintain the divide between aural elements during louder moments. The entire film is based around a telecast rock concert, so music plays a heavy role. Watching the film, it’s obvious that the performances were shot without sound and that the rock tracks were added in post The music itself sounds great and includes plenty of depth for a mono track, but the foley work, especially feet scampering on the dance floor, is keyed way too loud. The score is credited to Laurin Rinder and W. Michael Lewis. I’m not sure who did what, but there does seem to be a slight division between the screeching synthesizer cues and most more ‘natural’ piano and percussion motifs, so maybe the composers worked apart from each other. A couple of breathy, reverberating hisses also directly recall Harry Manfredini’s Friday the 13th themes.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with director Emmett Alston
  • The Making of New Year's Evil (37:20, HD) – Another retrospective mini-doc that features interviews with cast members Kip Niven, Grant Cramer, and Taaffe O'Connell, and director of photography Thomas Ackerman. It’s not particularly exciting, but it’s plenty informative
  • Trailer


 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

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Scream Factory Collected Reviews

Blacula

(release 3/3/2015)
In 1780, African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) pays a visit to Count Dracula in Transylvania, seeking his support in ending the slave trade. Instead, the evil count curses his noble guest and transforms him into a vampire! Released from his coffin nearly two centuries later by a pair of luckless interior decorators, Mamuwalde emerges as ‘Blacula,’ one strange dude strollin' the streets of L.A. on a nightly quest for human blood! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

To a certain cross-section of rural America, all blaxploitation films were pretty scary, but William Crain’s Blacula was the first to blend hip urbanisms with horror movie conventions, as established by Universal in the 1930s. Because it is the first, Blacula is often the default choice for the best representation of the blaxploitation/horror mash-up. However, most modern viewers will probably be surprised by how low key and equitable it is. Though the jive talk and stereotypes have been filtered awkwardly through the white suburban experiences of most of the filmmakers, star William Marshall, who was an established, respected theater actor (his Othello was legendary), personally rewrote the most offensive aspects of the original script (Blacula’s ‘real’ name was Andrew Brown, after a character in the blackface comedy Amos and Andy), supposedly inventing the title character’s aristocratic back-story, and demanding that he remain dignified – more like Bela Legosi and Christopher Lee’s popular vampire princes. This unusual balance of dignity and exploitation commerce is what makes Blacula interesting and even unique, though it’s also a symptom of its tedious momentum and made-for-TV production values. It’s not quite outrageous enough for the type of crowd that eats up politically incorrect extremes and not quite genuinely good enough to transcend its B-movie roots.

The most extraordinary thing about the entire movie is that the dignity inherent in so many of the black characters ends up extending to the surprisingly neutral treatment of the gay couple that accidentally awaken Blacula after buying up part of his estate. Billy (Rick Metzler) and Bobby (Ted Harris) are relatively effeminate, but their gayness doesn’t seem to be part of a joke at their expense (aside from the police detective using the word ‘faggots’ to describe them after they’ve died). At least not in retrospect.

MGM has treated their Blacula catalogue material with respect over the years, starting with a very decent-looking anamorphic DVD. This new Blu-ray double feature (with Scream Blacula Scream, as seen below) is the third use of the studio’s original HD scan, which also showed up on Eureka Classics’ UK Blu-ray and the MGMHD television station. Unlike many other genre films under the company’s banner, Blacula was not neglected by MGM. John M. Stephens’ photography, loud costumes, and busy production design help the sometimes unevenly grainy 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer to appear dynamic and sharp at the worst of times. Most clarity issues are due to the moody lighting, which are meant to obscure a lot of detail. Aside from the darkest sequences, colours are homogenized and natural. The obvious print damage, including scratches and dirt, is often relegated to the ends of the various reels. There are some minor compression artefacts throughout, likely because the film was crammed onto the disc with its sequel.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack (the Eureka disc was PCM) suffers from bad recording on the filmmakers’ part and fights against echoey dialogue and audio drop-out throughout the entire runtime. But, considering the quality of the original material, this track is pretty clear or at least consistently listenable. And the creepy machine sounds of the boiler room during the climax are pretty effective. Gene Page’s musical score beautifully encapsulates the film’s dueling gothic and modernist tones as it fluctuates between brooding orchestral motifs, groovy love themes, and funky chase sequences. The music suffers from a twinge of the muffling and echo that the dialogue does, but is generally cleaner and pretty deep-set for a single-channel mix.

Extras include:
  • Audio Commentary With Author/Film Historian/Filmmaker David F. Walker (author of Reflections On Blaxploitation: Actors And Directors Speak)
  • Theatrical trailer


 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

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 Scream Factory Collected Reviews


Scream Blacula Scream


Blacula lives! Willis Daniels (Richard Lawson), the son of a late high priestess, seeks revenge on the cultists who have chosen his foster sister, Lisa (Pam Grier), as their new leader. Hoping to curse Lisa, Willis unwittingly resurrects Blacula's earthly remains – and unleashes the Prince of Darkness and his freaked-out army of the undead! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Blacula was popular, so, naturally, the B-movie titans at American International Pictures decided to make another one. It was tied to the first film and still featured Marshall in the title role, but Scream Blacula Scream is more sensationalistic and, ultimately fits the blaxploitation model better than its predecessor. There’s more emphasis on urban slang, criminal behavior, and general swagger, as well as an expansion of horror movie mythology and Mamuwalde’s ‘man out of time’ experiences (he describes the origins of antiques to wide-eyed onlookers and takes an stroll on a modern street). New director Bob Kelljan had a much stronger sense of style than William Crain and was at the top of his game as he came off the production of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1971) – the two films that first redefined Dracula for the post-hippie era. Perhaps he recycles a smidge too much from the Yorga films, but Kelljan’s scary scenes are exponentially more dynamic than any of Crain’s static, TV-movie compositions.

Marshall sometimes appears bored as he’s forced to leave behind some of the original film’s romantic tendencies, but ends up bringing more frightening authority to the role. Despite the lurid subject matter (it’s still quite PG-rated), he retains the character’s all-important dignity and continues making important social statements, specifically when he calls out a pair of hustlers/pimps for ‘enslaving’ their prostitutes. Besides Marshall, the sequel didn’t retain any of the major creative staff, but did pick up a major cast ally in Pam Grier, who is a massive asset, even when not performing at the top of her game (she had her biggest breakthrough the same year with Jack Hill’s Coffy). Honestly, the only thing keeping me from considering Scream Blacula Scream a complete and utter improvement on its predecessor is that there’s even less story to tell this time around. Too many scenes are inflated to fill out a feature runtime.

The voodoo cult angle – an ‘urban-flavoured’ twist on the popular Manson Family-inspired tropes that grindhouse filmmakers were exploiting in the ‘70s – became a mainstay for the short-lived blaxploitation/horror boom. It fits the cultural experience of the African American-themed framing as well as the tradition shared by other ‘70s Dracula incarnations, like Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 from Hammer studios. Marshall himself appeared as the title character in William Girdler’s Abby (1974) a cheaply-made urban riff on The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby that struggled for distribution after the Exorcist’s copyrights holders at Warner Bros. sued. Crain’s Blacula follow-up was a race-based variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde template (which was alrealy retooled for gender in Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) called Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). Scream Blacula Scream’s voodoo aspects also played into Leon Ichaso’ Sugar Hill (1974), in which a voodoo queen calls upon undead Guinean slaves to help her kill the white mobsters that wronged her. Arthur Marks’ J.D.’s Revenge (1976) was more in line with the typical blaxploitation crime picture. In it, the spirit of a murdered hustler possesses a young, well-behaved student to enact bloody vengeance. The best of the bunch, however, was Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (aka: Blood Couple, 1973), a parabolic and sometimes surreal vampire lore variant that starred Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Johnson and was recently remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

William A. Levey’s Blackenstein (1973) was originally planned as an AIP follow-up to Blacula, but eventually moved to Exclusive International. Sadly, screenwriter/producer Frank R. Saletri’s planned follow-ups, including such delectable titles as The Fall of the House of Blackenstein, Black Frankenstein Meets the White Werewolf, and Black the Ripper were either not produced, or, in the case of Black the Ripper, finished and never released – though a rough cut recently appeared on various torrent websites.

Scream Blacula Scream got basically the same treatment as its predecessor on digital home video, including an anamorphic DVD (that went out of print) and an HD scan that was used on a Eureka Blu-ray and aired on MGMHD. This is an even more uneven transfer than the first film and one that suffers more in terms of compression (still, we’re talking minor blemishes). Dark scenes can appear really muddy and grain levels tend to ebb and flow during the most heavily shadowed sequences. However, when this transfer looks good, it actually bests the first film, especially in terms of complex patterns and fine details. Physical print damage is minor despite the occasionally lumpy grain levels. Colours are, once again, natural, though the prevalently displayed browns and reds do cause a bit of low-level noise.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is definitely better than the first films, again due mostly to the quality of the original material. The single channel treatment flattens some of the vocals and incidental effects, but there aren’t any issues with reverb/echo and the overall mix is more consistent. Bill Marx’s compositions aren’t as catchy as Page’s, but his music is better integrated into the mix. The score exist alongside and fill-in for effects and, along with a number of pop songs, are decently layered, despite the single-channel stuffing. The tribal drums used during the climax are particularly impressive.

Extras include
  • New interview with actor Richard Lawson (13:30, HD)
  • Theatrical trailer


 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

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Scream Factory Collected Reviews

The Exterminators of the Year 3000

(release 3/3/15)
In a post-apocalyptic future where the earth is a desert and water is the most precious substance of all, a band of survivors must turn to a mysterious stranger to battle a ruthless gang of motorcycle psychos for control of the wasteland and the water. A glorious crash of guns, nuclear fallout, and synthesizers make this a must-see for anyone who’s been longing for the day in which they can finally get beyond Thunderdome. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

The cult Blu-ray field is a busy one and Scream Factory has, for the most part, separated themselves by sticking to North American catalogue releases, leaving foreign releases to the likes of Blue Underground and Synapse Films. Until now, their Italian B-movie output has been relegated to four-film DVD sets and Amityville Horror 2. Giuliano Carnimeo’s super-obscure Exterminators of the Year 3000 seems like a particularly random place to start. Originally planed as another double-feature release with Bruno Mattei’s Cruel Jaws, a made-for-TV Jaws rip-off that had to be dropped when it was noted that it featured actual footage from Universal’s Jaws movies, I assumed Scream followed through on the solo release, because they were excited about their upcoming collector’s editions of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and George Miller’s Mad Max. These two dystopian sci-fi actioneers were particularly popular in Italy and, as the zombie movie cycle burned out, they helped fuel a wave of ultra-violent, post-apocalyptic thrillers. Exterminators was released only a year after the key Italian-made entry in the post-apocalyptic cycle, Enzo G. Castellari’s 1990: The Bronx Warriors, but the Italian phases were often so short-lived that it actually represents the cycle’s down-turn. That said, it’s definitely not at the bottom of this particular genre’s barrel – more like right in the middle. And, by that measure, this is probably a decent place for novice enthusiasts to start.

Carnimeo made a career out of following other filmmakers’ leads. He dabbled in gialli ( The Case of the Bloody Iris), comedy ( My Wife Goes Back to School), and straight horror ( Rat Man), but was most prevalent in the spaghetti western field, where he picked up the Ringo and Sartana franchises. He was a worthy workhorse, but rarely stood out against the fray. Exterminators is typical in its mediocrity, while still including a number of exciting high-speed action sequences. The action isn’t consistent, but almost enough to make up for his lack of outrageous violence. Ambitious scale, competent framing, and slightly insane stuntmen are usually enough for sequences like these to succeed. The screenplay is credited to José Truchado, along with Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, who probably did rewrites. Sacchetti was the key story man on the very Escape From New York-themed The Bronx Warriors, but everyone involved seems to have been told to watch and re-watch Mad Max and its first sequel, because the plot and a number of set-pieces specifically recall Miller’s films. There are a handful of wacky additions that you’d only see in a spaghetti-apocalypse movie, like a bladed bolo, a hot black chick with retractable knuckle blades, and a little boy with an awesomely over-powered robot arm. The cast features a bevy of Italian industry favourites, including Luciano Pigozzi ( Blood and Black Lace), Eduardo Fajardo ( Django), and little Luca Venantini (the kid that survives City of the Living Dead).

Part of me hoped that Scream Factory was bestowing Exterminators of the Year 3000 with a standalone release because they had stumbled across a particularly stunning HD scan (again, it was planned as a double-feature). Alas, this 1080p transfer is among the studio’s most disappointing efforts. The key word is: muddy – muddy colours, muddy details, and muddy element separation. In fact, the image is so fuzzy and blobby, I wouldn’t have assumed that it was an HD transfer, had I not known better. Grain is mushy, appearing more like discoloured CRT noise, and the spaces between shapes bleed, especially in expansive wide-angle shots. Colours alternate between flat green and brown interiors while more vibrant outdoor shots are caked in yellow. Had this been an SD transfer, I would’ve been impressed, which made me wonder if Scream Factory wasn’t using another of Code Red’s home-brewed transfers, following the fine results with their Final Exam and Evilspeak Blu-rays. Sure enough, the image quality, including colour-timing, looks an awful lot like a slightly less compressed version of Code Red’s standard definition DVD, save the key distinction that it is correctly framed at 1.85:1, instead of being cropped at 1.33:1. It’s rough, but it’s also the best version available.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack fares better. The dialogue is a bit muffled at times and the English dialogue is keyed a too loudly over the crunchy vehicular action, but these are all typical side effects of Italian dubs from the era. Most of these films (including this one, it seems) were shot without sound to save time and so that various language tracks can be added after completion. This gives the effects a thin quality, especially when set under dialogue-driven scenes. The action sequences fair much better, though, again, the vocals are a bit loud. Composer Detto Mariano’s keyboard-based melodies are certainly charming, but also sounds like first pass demos at times.

Extras (which are borrowed from the Code Red disc) include:
  • Commentary with actor Robert Iannucci
  • Boogie Down with the Alien: Interview with Robert Iannucci (17:43, SD)
  • Trailer and TV spots


 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

 Scream Factory Collected Reviews

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