Severin Exploitation Bonanza II (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out Bloody Moon, Bloody Birthday, and The Baby on Blu-ray...
The late Jesus Franco, who passed away on April 2nd of 2013, was among the most prolific filmmakers of all time. Among the 200 or so films he made are maybe a dozen the average filmgoer could possibly appreciate. His value as an artist is all but lost in a wash of pornography (both the hardcore and softcore varieties) and a cursory brand of cheap exploitation that gives cheap exploitation a bad name. Unlike other smut-peddling ‘auteurs,’ like Aristide Massaccesi (aka: Joe D’Amato) and Jean Rollin, Franco didn’t have much of an affinity for pure genre horror. His general disinterest is readily apparent in the generally dull and listless genre films he released throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. His attempts at zombie ( Oasis of the Zombies), women in prison ( Women Behind Bars), and cannibal movies ( Mondo Cannibale) are among the worst that the already trash-burdened subgenres have to offer. I’m by no means an expert on his output, nor am I particularly prepared to defend the majority of his filmography; however, like his contemporaries (especially Rollin), Franco showed occasional signs of value throughout his career that only the harshest critic could entirely dismiss as worthless Eurotrash.
Franco’s most straight-faced and minimally smutty entry in the 1980s slasher cycle, Bloody Moon, isn’t by any means remarkable, but it is high on the short list of his most entertaining films. Like Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces and Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper, Bloody Moon blurs the lines between the Italian giallo and North American slasher genres. It’s a definitively European-flavored mix that makes every effort to also mimic the trappings of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and all the other dead teenager movies they inspired. Franco actually managed to ape the visual clichés of both genres – and did it without the excessive zooms and soft focus that defined his uglier period output. Normally, a practice in anti-style would be cause for shame, but we’re talking about Mondo Cannibale/ Oasis of the Zombies era Franco here. Any break with convention is welcome. Bloody Moon is also a particularly gory movie – a rarity for Franco, despite his reputation. Not quite Lucio Fulci gory, but plenty gory, especially the ‘knife through the nipple’ murder and the show-stopping, giant buzzsaw beheading (featured on just about every piece of production art since the film was first released). The violence was enough to garner the attention of the BBFC censors in the ‘80s and Bloody Moon was one of the 39 films on the DDP’s ‘video nasties’ list ( The Devil Hunter, Women Behind Bars and Cannibal Terror, which Franco co-directed, were included on the list of additional ‘unprosecuted’ films). It was originally edited for its R-rated US release and wasn’t available entirely uncut until 2008 when it hit DVD. This Blu-ray includes that extended cut.
Severin’s 2008 DVD release of Bloody Moon was one of the studio’s best SD discs and a massive upgrade over the murky VHS and non-anamorphic, 1.33:1 foreign market DVDs. This new Blu-ray appears to have been mastered from the same source, but doesn’t suffer the earlier release’s compression issues (low-level noise/blocking effects in warmer hues, for example). The details on this 1080p, 1.78:1 (slightly cropped from 1.66:1) transfer are tight and the print is incredibly clear and, thanks in part to Franco and cinematographer Juan Soler’s use of softer focus/lighting, grain levels are smooth. There is a hint of DNR processing, but not so much that the image becomes waxy. The close-up textures and complex background patterns are notably (not outrageously) sharper than the SD release. The print is still a bit dark during the night sequences, but black levels are cleaner and vivid highlights have a stronger pop. The colour palette matches the DVD as well, though with a slight upgrade in vibrancy and hue separation. It’s a great effort all around, aside from a couple of grainy, lower-resolution gore shots, which, based on the film’s censorship history, might have been the best source material Severin could find. Despite the Dolby Digital logo on the back of the box, this (and the other two films released alongside it) features an uncompressed, 48kHz, LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack. I imagine this is the same track that accompanied the DVD, but the lack of compression seems to have corrected some minor high volume distortion and dialogue track hiss. Incidental and atmospheric effects are crisp, though still buried beneath the music. Gerhard Heinz’s score charms as it cycles through the same silly disco-pop, ‘romantic’ guitar melody and two or three Goblin-esque scare cues. The music has quite a bit of aural depth as well for a mono track. The lack of alternate language tracks might bother some viewers, but I’m pretty sure the Spanish/German co-production was shot without sound, anyway. The extras include Franco’s Moon (18:50, SD), an interview with the director, and the original US trailer.
Three babies are simultaneously born in the same hospital at the peak of a full solar eclipse. Ten years later, these adorable youngsters suddenly begin a kiddie-killing spree of stranglings, shootings, stabbings, beatings and beyond. Can the town’s grown-ups stop these pint-sized serial killers before their blood-soaked birthday bash? (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday is often mistakenly lumped in with the slasher genre, due to the period it was released and a title that includes a celebratory date (it’s easily confused with J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me, which was released the same year). Granted, it starts like another by-the-numbers post- Halloween stalk and stab quickies, including pointedly similar characters and setting (the heroine is clearly a Laurie Strode stand-in and one of her friends is the daughter of the local sheriff), but Hunt is merely using familiar tropes to set audience expectations in the wrong direction. Eventually (about 15 or 20 minutes in), Bloody Birthday is revealed to be a slasher-flavoured entry in the longer-running ‘evil kid’ genre. If Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child is the evil kid equivalent to The Birds and Sean MacGregor & David Sheldon’s The Devil Times Five is the evil kid equivalent to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then Bloody Birthday is certainly the genre’s Friday the 13th. It’s not as slimy, gritty, or perverse as MacGregor & Sheldon’s effort or as authentically dramatic and harrowing as Serrador’s, but Hunt’s film is a perpetually amusing, malicious, and politically incorrect little romp. It sets itself apart from a busy field with good performances (the kids are great), a wry sense of humour (including an extended nude dance from future MTV VJ, Downtown Julie Brown), and dedication to the super-exploitative concept of children killing adults and teens (often after watching them have sex). Hunt has a great eye for shooting kinetic action on a shoestring budget (the junkyard car chase is fantastic) and crafts a few clever, suspenseful set-pieces (specifically the climax). My only complaint pertains to the lack of gore. I didn’t come here to use my imagination!
Bloody Birthday is the only one of these three titles that is otherwise available on Blu-ray – from the UK company 88 Films. Otherwise, Severin’s remastered, anamorphic DVD was the ideal way to watch it (the VCI DVD looked as mediocre as most VCI DVDs) and this 1080p version (too tightly framed at 1.78:1, instead of 1.66:1) is a proper upgrade. Details are sharper and only slightly hampered by the soft and shallow focus practices. Grain levels are pretty thick, thicker than either of the other two releases discussed here, but finer in frequency than the slightly mushy DVD. The grain seems natural and other film artefacts are nominal, including only a few scuffs and scratches. The nighttime sequences that open the film are profoundly blue in tint. This appears to be at least partially Hunt and cinematographer Stephen L. Posey’s intent. When hue quality is important, however, colours are relatively vivid, especially in the brighter daylight images. Skin tones are natural, not oddly homogenized, and most colours are tight, despite the soft focus and heavy grain (the reds bleed out a little bit). Black levels are a bit soft during the daylight scenes, though not devastatingly so.
The LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is louder and fuller than the DVD’s Dolby Digital counterpart, but features all the same flat, muffled sound qualities and minor distortions at higher volume levels. Dialogue is inconsistent in terms of clarity and volume levels, as if some characters are speaking through cheesecloth and others are recording ADR in an echo chamber. The muffled quality extends to the sound effects, too, though this isn’t unexpected from low-budget slashers from the era. Arlon Ober’s Bernard Herrmann rip-off musical score is a victim of distortion during the big scare moments and is sometimes lost beneath the vocals and effects. Extras include Don’t Eat That Cake: An Interview with Lori Lethin (9:50, SD), A Brief History of Slasher Films (15:10, SD), which is very similar to an extra on Lionsgate’s My Bloody Valentine release (and which proves Bloody Birthday isn’t actually a slasher), an audio interview with Director Ed Hunt (an ear-numbing 51:10, SD), and trailers.
An idealistic L.A. County social worker (Anjanette Comer) is sent to investigate the case of Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman), her two buxom daughters, and son ‘Baby’ (David Mooney), a mentally-disabled man who sleeps in a crib, eats in a high-chair, crawls, bawls and wears diapers. But what secrets of unnatural attachment – and sexual obsession – are all of these women hiding? (From Severin’s official synopsis)
The Baby ranks very high on the cluttered, weird-shit-o-meter and earns special consideration for the mainstream studio system that birthed it. This bizarre tale of a social worker who takes special interest in a full grown man being treated as an infant by his pseudo-psychotic family wasn’t made by some random Italian exploitation king, looking to cash-in on Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, nor was it the brainchild of a certifiably crazy filmmaker, like Andy Milligan – it was ushered into existence by Ted Post, the talented director behind likable genre action flicks, including Hang ‘Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Magnum Force. It stars accomplished actors Ruth Roman ( Strangers on a Train) and ‘70s TV stars Marianna Hill, Anjanette Comer, and Susanne Zenor. They are also clearly taking the production seriously, not phoning it in for a quick paycheck. But the oddest thing about The Baby is that, based on its own merits, it’s actually kind of a good movie. The utterly bizarre concept and gonzo performances fulfill the ‘geek show’ factor nicely. The filmmakers are smart enough to maintain the campy façade, but don’t completely overshadow the straight-faced characters and plotting. This ensures that the oddball comedy and disturbing cruel-streaks strike the viewer with similar impacts (and I’m about 90% sure the biggest laughs are intended). Even viewers intent on making light of the absurdity might find themselves moved by the motley crew of characters, if they aren’t careful. Not content to rest on just an original exploitation concept or even a solid execution, Post fills in the cracks with a little PG-rated T&A, garishly dated sets and wardrobes, and a jaw-dropper of a climax that gives the director a chance to flex his action movie muscles. And that final reveal is still a shocker.
When I reviewed these films on DVD, I marked The Baby as one of the better of the three anamorphic transfers, but, watching them again and comparing notes, I now think it’s closer to the weakest. This 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is, again, taken from the same source as the DVD and is an upgrade in terms of compression artefacts and overall detail, but shares the SD version’s problems with gamma correction and flat colours. The pasty, reddish-brown black levels are pretty obvious in retrospect, especially when viewed back-to-back with the Bloody Moon disc, which, even at the mercy of soft focus/lighting, is significantly richer. This disc does look better during predominately dark sequences as well. The desaturated colours aren’t as obvious until this version is compared to images from the Geneon and Image Entertainment DVDs, both of which are notably more vivid (I no longer own a copy of the Image disc, so please see this DVDBeaver.com comparison to see what I’m talking about). The Blu-ray’s colours are also kind of jaundiced. In better news, print damage is minimal, outside of natural grain and a few spotty flecks of dirt. Details are very tight (much crisper than the open-matte Geneon and Image DVDs) and natural from foreground to back.
Also in good news, The Baby has the strongest LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack of the three releases. There are no issues with muffled effects and vocals, outside of the minor issues inherent in an older, single-channel master soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and easily understandable, despite the slight inconsistencies caused by ADR processes. Gerald Fried, who mostly worked as a television composer, supplies a classy, string and bell-driven score that is warmly reproduced here with a decent sense of depth. Fans should be aware that Severin’s version of the film (both this Blu-ray and the DVD) features a real baby’s vocals dubbed over David Mooney’s performance. This was the version I remember watching on VHS as well, but, according to imdb.com ‘trivia,’ Mooney’s own noises were included on the original tracks. Extras include Tales from the Crib (14:50, SD) – a phone interview with the director, a phone interview with actor David Mooney (20:00, HD film footage), and a trailer.
* 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.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 8th July 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Franco's Moon, Don’t Eat That Cake: An Interview with Lori Lethin, A Brief History of Slasher Films, Audio Interview with Director Ed Hunt, Tales from the Crib, Ted Post Audio Interview, David Mooney Audio Inerview, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jesús Franco, Ed Hunt, Ted Post
Cast: Olivia Pascal, Christoph Moosbrugger, Susan Strasberg, José Ferrer, Lori Lethin, Melinda Cordell, Julie Brown, Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill, Suzanne Zenor, David Manzy
Genre: Horror and Thriller
Length: 255 minutes