Severin Exploitation Bonanza! (US - DVD)
Gabe delights in the exploits of Bloody Birthday, Nightmares and The Baby...
When Bloody Birthday arrived in my mailbox (along with the other three films I’m covering here), I thought to myself, ‘Great, here’s one of a few generally liked North American, ‘80s era slashers I hadn’t slipped under my belt just yet’. I had not really read a lot pertaining to the plot of the film, apparently, because it’s totally not a slasher. Granted the film starts like another by the numbers post- Halloween stalk and slash, featuring strikingly similar characters and setting (though this time it’s actually meant to take place in California). But quickly enough (about 15 or 20 minutes) things take an abrupt turn into the similar, but different ‘evil kids’ subgenre, which is more interesting. In the end Bloody Birthday isn’t a slasher movie at all beyond the adult character traits, setting, and fact that sex equals death (the little monsters actually rack up a body count Jason Voorhees would envy, however). The slasher elements do create comparisons within the evil kid subgenre. If Who Can Kill a Child is the subgenre’s equivalent to The Birds, and The Devil Times Five is the subgenre’s equivalent to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then Bloody Birthday is certainly the subgenre’s equivalent to Friday the 13th. It’s not as slimy, gritty or generally perverse as Devil Times Five, or as genuinely dramatic and horrifying as Who Can Kill a Child, but Bloody Birthday is a fun, politically incorrect little romp, and sets itself slightly apart from the pack by featuring another minor as a major protagonist (more often than not these things are aimed squarely at freaking out the adults in the audience by presenting the evil kids as ‘the other’). Some scenes feature real kinetic momentum, and director Ed Hunt has a good feel for shooting action on a miniscule budget (the junk yard car chase is quite good). Hunt also crafts a few clever suspense set-pieces (the climax verges on brilliant), but doesn’t really mange to raise any hackles. This films certainly has its heart in the right place, is occasionally funny (usually on purpose), features surprisingly strong performances, and an extended nude dance from Downtown Julie Brown.
Severin has done a decent job remastering this particular gem, though I’m not familiar with past releases and am unable to compare it to anything outside of basic expectations. The print is generally well scrubbed, featuring a few minor scuffs and scratches, and a fine grain mesh, but no major damage. Detail levels are actually pretty close to what I’d expect from a Blu-ray version of similar material, just lacking that extra bump of 1080p sharpness that would likely show in the form of cleaner edges in the backgrounds and finer grain size. Colours are decent, though inconsistent. The darkest scenes are definitely a problem, specifically the opening killing, which boils down to a series of light blue shapes moving throughout utter blackness. One real complaint though – on my set the film itself didn’t display at the appropriate 1.66:1, but 1.78:1, while the footage in the special features was set to the correct aspect ratio. Weird. The musical score is amusing in that it’s actually well produced and well written, yet so derivative John Williams and Bernard Herrmann’s estate probably should’ve received royalty checks. The two channel mono Dolby Digital sound is pretty weak and muffled overall. It’s often quite difficult to discern the dialogue, and sounds like the performances are being spoken through cheese cloth. The score comes off a bit better, but is also muffled, and bass heavy in all the wrong places. Extras include ‘Don’t Eat That Cake: An Interview with Lori Lethin’ (9:50), ‘A Brief History of Slasher Films’ (15:10), which is very similar to an extra on Lionsgate’s My Bloody Valentine release (and which proves how much Bloody Birthday isn’t actually a slasher), an audio interview with Director Ed Hunt (an ear-numbing 51:10, could’ve worked better as a commentary), and trailers.
While driving the road into Sleazeville one might find oneself overwhelmed by the utter bleakness of Bill Lustig’s Maniac and Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper. These curious, but sensitive types might want to visit the more ‘fun’ side of town, where Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces is shown on loop next door to John Lamond’s Aussie-flavoured blood bath Nightmares. Also known as Stage Fright, not to be confused with Michele Soavi’s similar and better Stage Fright (itself aka: Aquarius), or Romano Scavolini’s center of Sleazeville grotesquery Nightmare (aka: Nightmares in a Damaged Brain), Nightmares is among the more sexually explicit and generally naughty stalk and kill movies ever made, due in part to Lamond’s softcore smut pedigree. This tale of a genophobic actress and her misadventures while starring in a local play has a reputation for graphic gore as well, but the real messy stuff is mostly left to our imaginations in the form of blood smears on nekkid flesh. It’s certainly violent, disturbingly so at times, but there aren’t any spilled entrails, gouged eyeballs or spurting arteries, just consistently wet flesh wounds. Consistently wet flesh wounds set against fully frontally nekkid flesh.
Nightmares, like Stage Fright, Pieces and New York Ripper, took a great deal of its inspiration from Italian Gialli, rather than the still budding slasher genre, but the feel of the film is closer to straight, American-born slasher, especially in terms of the killer’s ‘sex equals death’ motivation (technically it was released the same year as Friday the 13th, negating any real influence either way). For the most part the film is properly endowed in all the right places (splattering blood, T&A), but also strikes all the wrong chords with just as much aggression, which really makes the difference. The acting is all over the place (ironically enough the lead is a terrible actress in real life too), the dialogue is howl-worthy (quite often on purpose – the backstage culture aspects are very well done), and the editing is abrupt and spotty, yet the pace keeps things moving. The best ‘bad’ aspect is the laughable plot, which like most Gialli, is built around the mystery of the killer’s identity, and his or her motivations. In this case the writers make the mistake of sticking the motivation right up front, then explicitly name the character dealing with it – Helen: the main character. The murders are filmed using subjective camera views to cover the identity of the murder, but then, just to make sure we aren’t confused by this, Helen repeatedly flashes back to scenes from the stalk and slash moments. The cops have a few red herring suspects, but there’s absolutely no reason for the audience to agree with them. In the end Helen is, spoiler alert, revealed to be the killer, and the reveal is played like a shock. Delightful.
Despite its vile reputation, Nightmares is actually quite the classy picture on technical levels. It was filmed using Panavision anamorphic stock, and Lamond injects as much art into his framing as he can muster. The Halloween and Dario Argento influences loom heavily in the compositions. This transfer is very similar to the AU R4 PAL disc, though I think I’d give that disc a slight edge in terms of clarity. The details and edges here are a bit mushy. Colour and utter blackness both play vital roles (as any good Argento rip-off should have it), and are pretty well represented, though I did notice more compression noise on the solid hues than I’m used to for the type. The box art claims the film was mastered from the vault material like Bloody Birthday and The Baby, but I’m a little disappointed by the degree of dirt and other artefacts present here. The film also features a tactful, better-than-it-deserves Brian May score, though it seems that the much in demand composer was only available for a single elongated cue, which is played ad nauseum during every stalking, killing and nightmare sequence. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack isn’t exactly demo worthy, but is clear enough to understand at all times, despite a little muffling. Extras include a relatively amusing commentary with director John Lamond and Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation (the documentary that features the film) director Mark Hartley (Lamond kind of sounds like he’s on the verge of death), the same ‘Brief History of Slasher Films’ (15:10), a John Lamond Trailer reel ( The ABCs of Love and Sex: Australian Style, Felicity, Pacific Banana, Breakfast in Paris and Sky Pirates), Nightmare’s trailer, and trailers for other Severin releases.
Since you’re already spending the night in Sleazeville, why not take a day trip over to WTF Town. The Baby ranks very high on the cluttered weird-shit-o-meter, and even earns special consideration for the relatively mainstream 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 directed by some random Italian exploitation king looking to cash-in on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it was ushered into existence by Ted Post, the relatively talented director behind action heavy films like Hang ‘Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Magnum Force. It stars real actors including Ruth Roman ( Strangers on a Train), and ‘70s TV stars Marianna Hill, Anjanette Comer and Susanne Zenor, and they’re taking the production seriously. Perhaps the oddest thing is that The Baby is actually kind of good. At the very least it’s almost impossible to look away from the utter insanity. If you aren’t careful, you might even find yourself moved. The film is smart enough to keep up a campy façade, but the characters and plotting are straight-faced, which works both to make the comedic and disturbing bits hit with the same impact (and I’m 90% sure the big laughs are intended). 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 last minute reveal that gives the director a chance to flex his action movie muscles.
Of the three films discussed here I’d probably mark The Baby the highest for its anamorphic transfer. Like Bloody Birthday it’s comparable to many 1080p releases of similar films, just flatter and less sharp. Obscurity and age considered, this is a pretty clean transfer, with minimal compression artefacts, minor print damage, and solid detail levels. Colours are a bit on the yellow side, but the reds and greens of the party scene are quite expressive and vibrant. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is also pretty good. The sound is cleaner and less muffled than the other two films, with relatively sharp vocal performances (quite possibly the most disturbing thing about the entire film is the fact that Baby is overdubbed by an actual infant, though this seems to differ between prints) , and relatively warm music. Effects are quite minimal, but don’t feature a lot of crackle, and don’t spazz-out on high volume levels. Extras include ‘Tales from the Crib’ a phone interview with director Ted Post, set over scenes from the film (20:00), a phone interview with actor David Mooney (11:50), a trailer, and trailers for other Severin releases.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 28th June 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Audio Interview with Director Ed Hunt, Don’t Eat That Cake! Interview with Star Lori Lethin, A Brief History Of Slasher Films Featurette, John Lamond and Mark Hartley Commentary, John Lamond Trailer Reel, Audio Interview with Director Ted Post, Audio Interview with David Mooney
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ed Hunt, John Lamond, Ted Post
Cast: K.C. Martel, Joe Penny, Michael Dudikoff, Max Phipps, Gary Sweet, Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill
Genre: Comedy, Horror and Thriller
Length: 249 minutes
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