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Synapse December Reviews

Thundercrack!

(1975)
A dark and stormy night in a creepy old house on the hill quickly turns into an eerie orgy of graphic humor, horror, and sex. (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

Curt McDowell’s DIY hardcore arthouse horror ‘classic’

Thundercrack!

falls a bit outside of my personal comfort zone as well as the comfort zone of most of DVDActive’s advertisers, but it’s such a unique and, in its own way, important entry in the history of independent genre filmmaking that I’m stretching the rules. The family-friendly stature of this website aside, I’m not referring to pornography as something that makes me personally uncomfortable in the psychological sense; rather, my knowledge base on the subject is next to zero. I’m only recently delving into the world of early European sexploitation and many years away from the American-made counterparts. This brief review will be more of a reactionary piece than I usually try to write, because this is an educational process.

Thundercrack! certainly is an extraordinary experience, one that mixes, matches, and subverts so many established genre practices that I can’t believe it doesn’t have a more rabid cult following. The aesthetic choices are apparently meant to evoke the likes of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill or Robert Wise’s The Haunting, but are closer to Night of the Living Dead and John Cassavetes’ schools of black & white cinéma vérité. In turn, the ‘old dark house’ and Cat and the Canary correlations are pretty trivial. But this all adds to the pot, as do the stiff performances, Lynchian dream sequences (maybe ‘flashbacks’ are a better way to describe them), pan-sexual proclivities (characters participate in straight, gay, and lesbian hardcore sequences), impossibly wordy exposition (everyone has an epic back-story), occasionally skin-crawling shocks (forced vomiting, banana masturbation, a condom with a little face on it), and unpredictable tonal shifts. Even the epic 160-minute runtime (2:39:30, to be exact, including intermission!) seems insane in a modern context (I guess I don’t know the average length of a porn parody, but assume they’re under two hours) and it is definitely a slog for the uninitiated. But, in the context of the overall canvas that is Thundercrack!, it makes sense.

McDowell made loads of low-budget porno shorts through the early ‘70s, seemingly as a lead-up to the epic insanity of Thundercrack!. He apparently began his education as a painter, which explains the film’s intelligent framing and competent camera work. His co-writer, George Kuchar, was more of a superstar in the underground scene. He and his brother Mike grew into an experimental hardcore industry (alone, he made more than 200 shorts and features from the 1950s all the way to 2007). Both McDowell and Kuchar are considered contemporaries of other soft/hardcore arthouse oddballs, like John Waters and, most famously, Andy Warhol. Personally, I noticed even more apt comparisons to the ultimate purveyors of DIY American horror maesters, including the Godfather of the splatter movie, Hershell Gordon Lewis, and the king/queen of ‘60s/’70s queer horror, Andy Milligan. Anyone aware of Milligan’s work will probably take this statement as an indictment of Thundercrack!, which is not my intention – I like to think of people like him as necessary and interesting evils. I also can’t help but assume there was some kind of rivalry between fans of Thundercrack! and Richard O'Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, given the fact that both are tailor-made cult films that lampoon horror motifs with pan-sexual taboos and both were released in 1975.

Thundercrack! is a relatively well-known film in certain fandom circles, but hasn’t been available for rediscovery outside of those circles for several decades. There are rare European VHS and Scandinavia DVD releases that include the 120-minute theatrical cut and an even rarer, seemingly unofficial (fan-made?) DVD that includes the 152-minute cut, but there has never been an official US home video version of the complete 160-minute director’s cut. Synapse is correcting this ‘tragedy’ for the film’s Blu-ray debut. This uncut, 1.33:1, 1080p HD transfer is about as sharp as we can expect from a 40-year-old underground porno that was filmed on 16mm. The imagery is crude, but not artlessly framed or overly dependent on handheld camerawork. McDowell, who acted as his own cinematographer and camera operator, shot using super high contrast black & white and embraced blooming and diffused natural light. This makes for a pretty unique (but not unheard of for ‘60s/’70s underground filmmaking) look with soft lines and very little in terms of medium greys. The increased detail helps to tighten grain levels, which, in turn, helps define shapes and textures – i.e. the grain clumps themselves make for some fuzzier backgrounds. This kind of sounds like I’m insulting the effort, but it really does look impressive. The heavy blacks and whites are incredibly consistent without any compression artefact issues. There is notable print damage throughout, but nothing beyond the expectations of an underground film that was basically lost for decades.

The original mono soundtrack has been preserved in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound. Much of the dialogue was clearly post-dubbed and mumbled to the point of incoherence at some points, yet the tone is surprisingly naturalistic. If anything, the set-synced sequences are flatter and more aurally off-putting. Effects work follows suit with crackly incidental noises and relatively rich catalogue effects, such as a crashing car and, of course, thunder cracks. Storywriter/actor/composer Mark Ellinger’s mostly piano-based score sounds CD quality for the most part and invokes a fun silent film motif.

The extensive extras include:
Disc One (Blu-ray):
  • Vintage audio interview with director Curt McDowell – This interview, conducted by (I assume) George Kuchar at the San Francisco Art Institute, appears on the Blu-ray in place of an audio commentary track. McDowell’s boy-like voice and calm honesty is the absolute opposite of what I assumed would come from the director of Thundercrack!. He takes his art seriously, to the point that he prefers not to use the term ‘funny,’ but he is also modest and, in this regard, sort of emotionally fascinating. This is more of a psychological confessional than a discussion about arthouse porn. The total interview runs about one hour and twenty-four minutes.
  • It Came From Kuchar documentary (86:30, HD) – Jennifer Kroot’s complete 2009 documentary on the life and times of twin underground filmmakers, George and Mike Kuchar. This sweet-natured doc covers the full range of the Kuchar’s career with playful animated motifs made in the spirit of George and Mike’s movies and footage from said films. It includes interviews with industry folks, like John Waters, Buck Henry, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and many more.

Disc Two (DVD)
  • 2004 Interview with George Kuchar (10:20) – The late filmmaker answers questions about his part as writer and actor in Thundercrack!, as well as some of McDowell’s other films. The interview was shot at the San Francisco Art Institute with the help of his students (it has a fun/silly experimental quality for no good reason).
  • Marion Eaton Recalls “Gert Hammond” (5:40) – Another 2004 featurette, in which the actress that plays Gert reads a letter (short play?) she penned on the subject.
  • Recalling Thundercrack! (8:20) – Storywriter/actor/composer Mark Ellinger discusses the mostly insane film in very logical terms, including technical issues and the post-production scoring process. He also talks about the brutal re-editing committed by the distributors, who balked at the epic length.
  • Curt McDowell & Marion Eaton interview (23:00) – This interview, conducted by Carol Daniels for a 1976 episode of a (public television?) episode of San Francisco Bay Area Filmmakers, features the only video footage of the director talking about his film. Once again, McDowell’s soft-spoken honesty is a pleasant surprise. Eaton’s part of the interview is expectedly thoughtful, if not a bit opaque.
  • Outtakes and behind-the-scenes (29:50) – A raw collection of footage and alternate takes that Synapse discovered while searching for film materials. There are some sound-free sections.
  • Sex scene outtakes (17:30) – More raw footage. Maybe a bit rawer, if you get my meaning (wink, wink).
  • Original cast audition footage (8:40, no sound)
  • Short Films Directed By Curt McDowell
    • Confessions (11:00) – The director films himself confessing ‘misdeeds’ to his parents (assuming they ever saw the footage).
    • Naughty Words (2:10) – A compilation of lewd words set to pornographic stills.
    • Loads (19:30) – Lots of arty masturbation and felatio footage.
    • Boggy Depot (16:50) – A rather ambitious musical melodrama.
    • Siamese Twin Pinheads (4:00) – Two men in diapers, sharing a pantyhose hat, sing a sing while a nun looks on.
  • Trailer


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Synapse December Reviews

Triumph of the Will


Why on Earth would anyone want to preserve Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will? Shot during the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany, this early piece of the fascist party’s famous propaganda was personally commissioned by Hitler himself (apparently to the chagrin of Joseph Goebbels, who wanted it to go through the official Propaganda Ministry) and expertly keyed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. It is, by definition, a despicable creation. But it would be irresponsible to ignore its prowess. Riefenstahl’s filmmaking techniques were revolutionary – inspiring not only the American WWII propaganda films that followed their entry into the war, but countless fictional features and even a number of Hollywood classics. Most famously George Lucas used it as a visual basis for some sequences the original Star Wars (the final Rebel award ceremony is modeled on Riefenstahl’s compositions, for example). It’s important to preserve Triumph of the Will, so that future generations can learn from its technical artistry as well as recognize the shallowness of its message. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Synapse is releasing it during the early stages of the latest Presidential campaign. Also, as famously pointed out by Riefenstahl herself – a fascinating figure who began her career as an actress, survived WWII trials, renounced Nazism (likely because it was convenient for her to do it), garnered a special award for her two-part 1938 documentary Olympia, and lived to the ripe age of 101 – there isn’t technically any anti-semitic rhetoric in Triumph of the Will (for the record, there’s barely any dialogue at all). Her insistence that she was not fully aware of the Final Solution rings hollow, but she and Hitler were at least smart enough to know that blatant anti-Jewish sentiment would throw up red flags for the international community. The sour taste of crowds cheering Hitler’s hateful oration is a bit easier to swallow as being ‘historically significant,’ minus the teeth-grinding presence of cultural stereotyping.

Synapse previously released Triumph of the Will on DVD and, according to their press release, it is one of their all-time best selling titles (schools apparently buy a lot of copies). This new 1.19:1, 1080p transfer was culled from a 2K rescan of the original fine grain master and digitally restored under the supervision of film historian and preservationist Robert A. Harris (known for his work on Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and My Fair Lady). This is a legitimately top-tier remaster of a very old film that was shot in uncontrollable outdoor conditions. There are inconsistencies throughout – some due to in-camera technical problems (loss of focus, over-amped whites, increases in grit during darker shots, et cetera) and some due to print damage (scratches, dust, dirt, et cetera). Overall detail is sharp, elements are well-separated, and middleground gradations are relatively clean, despite some occasionally chunky grain. That grain structure tends to flow in vertical lines and, during the darkest scenes, you can often make out slightly lightened strips that, again, move vertically through the frame. There are also some very minor issues with the framing, I suppose, as the edges are rounded from time to time. A watermark occasionally appears in the lower right corner as well. I can’t make out what it represents, though.

The original German soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. There is some high end distortion and tinniness, both of which are expected from a film that utilized pretty early sound technology to record live dialogue from a very loud rally. Crackle and pop are practically non-existent and the sound floor is set incredibly low without the side effect of any obvious noise-reduction artefacts. The bulk of the track is musical in nature, including Horst Wessel, Herbert Windt, and, of course, Richard Wagner standards (all conducted by John Müller). Note that the subtitles offer cultural context for a modern American audience, including descriptions of landmarks and historical figures not otherwise named.

Extras include:
  • Audio Commentary by Dr. Anthony R. Santoro – Santoro, a respected expert on National Socialist Germany, discusses Riefenstahl’s technique, the back-story of the production, the historical and cultural context of the events, and the psychological meaning of the film’s images in this incredibly educational, yet accessible and personable track. I’d guess that even viewers too disgusted by the Nazi legacy to appreciate Triumph of the Will’s significance will find this commentary valuable.
  • Day of Freedom short film (17:00, HD) – Riefenstahl’s 1935 short, remastered here in high-definition, focuses on the German armed forces, who were ‘underrepresented’ in the previous year’s Triumph of the Will. It is an even more expressionistic piece, brimming with truly gorgeous photography and lots of action-packed footage of soldiers running dramatic drills.


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Synapse December Reviews

Stalingrad


It has been called the deadliest battle in the history of all wars with almost four million casualties.  Lasting over six months, a major Soviet city was decimated and most of its citizens killed – ordered not to flee by Stalin himself. The Eastern Front experienced the viciousness of war on a scale of unimaginable horror and brutality. The bloodiest and most savage fighting took place in Stalingrad between August 1942 and February 1943. Stalin's city on the Volga had military significance for Hitler: it carried the name of his enemy and therefore had to be destroyed. The ensuing battle sealed the fates of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, and marked the turning point of World War II. It was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

In 2003, producers (sometimes directors and writers) Sebastian Dehnhardt, Christian Deick, and Jörg Müllner co-created a mammoth documentary about the Battle of Stalingrad for German television. Simply titled Stalingrad, originally aired in three parts – The Attack (53:40), The Kessel (56:00), and The Doom (55:10). The complex story is told via talking head interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle (i.e. Russian and German), narration (some taken from letter correspondence – in the Ken Burns Civil War tradition), vintage footage from the front (and a little from the home front, some of it reenacted for propaganda purposes), simple CG-animated illustrations of military actions, and modern images of the battlefields for comparison’s sake. Things begin roughly with the filmmakers cramming the highlights of the 165-minute production into about eight minutes. I assume the idea was to set the mood, but it’s too much too quickly and the transition into the more in-depth exploration of the battle is awkward. However, with the unnecessary wrap-up out of the way, the documentary finds its structural footing. The footage from the front illustrates the intensity of the battles, the horror of the violence (civilian and military), and even offers levity on a few occasions. For example, the images of German soldiers trying to mount the pack camels they’ve commandeered. The interviews are practiced, but honest, or at least as honest as you’d expect from the people involved in a contentious period of world history, and, at their best, offer raw emotional context for the story.

Synapse first released Stalingrad on anamorphic DVD in 2006 and, though released at a time when HD televisions were still the exception, it was made for HD broadcasting. This Blu-ray includes all three episodes in 1.68:1, 1080p and looks about as good as any made-for-TV documentary you’ve ever seen in HD. That is to say that the image quality changes, depending on the source footage. Some sequences looks great, like the stunning modern photography (it’s as pretty as any BBC nature doc), the interviews (some of which are slightly overwhelmed by the moody lighting and a bit noisy) and much of the black & white footage. Other sequences, like the opening title animation and the rest of the vintage images, is rougher and likely taken from non-HD sources. The ‘good looking’ historical photography is grainy and often covered in small print damage artefacts, but is not obviously compressed, while the SD sourced stuff has considerable combing issues. This release, like the DVD, includes the English dubbed version of the series, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. I’m sure some viewers would prefer the option to watch the film in its original German, but this isn’t an issue of dubbing actors – it is a case of translators speaking over interviews. It’s very common for educational documentaries and I believe that the Russian interviewers were overdubbed in German during the original broadcast. Sound quality is fine, though I’d be willing to guess that the English dubbing was mixed higher than the original German, because it tends to completely cover the subtle catalogue battle sounds (almost none of the historical footage features sound, so the filmmakers added some in post) and Enjott Schneider’s moody music.

Extras include:
  • Recollections: Deleted Interview Segments (17:20, SD) – Additional material with the people that experienced the battle, presented in their original languages with English subtitles.
  • Video interview with Dr. Guido Knopp (11:10, SD) – The professor/historian offers further perspective on the Battle of Stalingrad.
  • Stalingrad Today (3:00, SD) – A montage of modern images in and around the city of Volgograd.


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* 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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