Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except (US - BD RA)
Gabe has a delayed review of Josh Becker's cult favourite on Blu-ray...
For a brief period in the 1980s, the Evil Dead driving forces Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell and the rest of the Renaissance Pictures team became a miniature low-budget genre machine, supporting their long time Super 8 collaborators Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker. Soon after the release of Evil Dead 2 Raimi and Campbell appeared in Spiegel’s single location slasher Intruder, which was co-produced by future Quentin Tarantino collaborator Lawrence Bender. Intruder had a rough history on home video, but late last year Synapse Films did right by the material, and released a shockingly clean and colourful, uncut Blu-ray edition complete with a decent pile of extra features. But years before Intruder or Evil Dead 2, Josh Becker (who worked special effects for the original Evil Dead) and Campbell collaborated on a Super 8 movie entitled Stryker’s War, which would eventually be re-envisioned on a slightly bigger budget ($20k) and Super 16mm film as Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except. In the long run Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except (retitled by super producer Irvin Shapiro) is a more obscure film than Intruder (it was pretty exciting to find a Prism VHS copy in the pre-DVD days), but didn’t suffer the same level of censorship. Becker’s film is also the more ambitious picture, mixing multiple locations, aiming for bigger action, and even anchoring the whole film in a late ‘60s period setting. Based on exactly how low Becker’s budget is (this might be the cheapest film ever put to Blu-ray) this ambition is at times both admirable and unfortunate, which is where the fun comes in.
Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except isn’t really the low budget horror film it’s so often categorized as, rather, it’s low budget action film with character drama and semi-tasteless humour between action beats. The opening battle sequences are positively grin-inducing in their amateur production values, but I’m more impressed with the ambitious (for type) story structure, which mixes up elements of stuff like Rolling Thunder, Walking Tall and First Blood, with the most basic facts of the Manson Family murders. The scenes set within the peaceful period setting is a bit jarring, and the dramatic dialogue never approaches anything beyond silly. In fact, any discussion outside the realms of the basic plot (which is thin) will likely confuse viewers not acclimated to extremely low-budget cinema. But it’s okay, there’s still plenty of charm in the dopey exposition and general ‘world-building’, more than you find in more modern bargain-basement genre output (perhaps bargain-work shed). The bigger problem is that like so many cheapo exploitation releases, Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except has a whole lot of filler between action scenes and silly interactions.
Becker clearly learned something about camera movement and editing energy from working with Raimi, but doesn’t quite manage much beyond basic point and shoot capture (he acted as his own cinematographer). In comparison Scott Spiegel’s Intruder, direction is quite a bit more expressive, though Becker does produce a handful of graphically interesting set-ups, especially during home invasion sequences. Being an unironic fan of B-action, especially cheapo Italian Apocalypse Now and Dirty Dozen rip-offs, I’m in a unique position to compare Becker’s no-budget action to that of more talented and practiced filmmakers like Antonio Margheriti. Becker tends to make up for his lack of professionalism with heavy gore and surprisingly worthwhile slow motion inserts, and his actors are game for some relatively impressive stunt work. There are some choice deaths, especially in the final act where our heroes finally come upon the Manson-ish Family with their guns a-blazing. What’s missing is that sense of grit and grime seen in similar period releases. Such atmosphere is rarely purposefully achieved, and the Renaissance Pictures types tend to take Raimi’s lead and go in for fun over disturbing, but I think a hint of William Lustig’s 42nd anti-charm could’ve gone a long way for this particular production. I consider Sam Raimi’s impossibly hammy performance a plus, but suppose the film may have benefited from a more genuinely frightening portrayal of a pseudo-Charlie Manson. The bigger problem here being that viewers unaware of exactly who Sam Raimi is probably won’t get the same joy out of the performance. Becker probably would’ve had a more enduring cult hit on their hands if he’d hired Campbell as his lead (which he couldn’t because he was SAG at that time), but Campbell wasn’t a cult hero at the time, (technically Evil Dead hadn’t even been released yet, and its following was years away still).
Synapse’s Intruder Blu-ray was a revelation compared to the previous DVD editions, especially since I’d never realized it was shot on 35mm film. Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except does not benefit from the quality bump of 35mm, and generally speaking 16mm doesn’t do a lot more on Blu-ray than it does on DVD, but overall this is still a solid showing. I do not own the Anchor Bay DVD, so I’m not directly comparing anything here, but I am noting that Anchor Bay’s disc was presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, which means that even the non-HD DVD that is included with this set is technically an upgrade. The image quality here is relatively consistent, though there are sizable differences between the Vietnam stock footage and the set shot stuff. This being 16mm grain is prevalent, and changes up based on lighting schemes. Despite its constant presence the grain is fine, not blotchy, and with a few exceptions maintains a relatively even blackness. There’s an impressive lack of dirt on the print, and film based artefacts are minimal, including only occasional flecks of white and smudgy smears. Occasionally dark sequences are dark enough that it’s impossible to tell what exactly is going on, but in general highlight details are sharp enough to discern. Colour quality is better than anticipated, leading me to believe there was some effort put into colour correcting the original footage. The blue quality of the night sequences (which I believe are shot day for night) really stands out, as do some of the warmer hues, and green and red highlights pop plenty.
There isn’t a lot to say about the quality of this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack outside the fact that it works quite well, and gives the super cheap production a minor boost of credibility. The single channel quality and heavy lean on post production ADR leaves some scenes a bit over-busy and mushy, but important dialogue is always discernable, and even at its busiest there’s rarely more than a hint of high end distortion. Sound effects are almost all canned (I’m assuming most of the film was shot without sound), but usually have a natural feel, and the big gun effects feature plenty of bass boost despite the lack of a discreet LFE channel. Regular Raimi and Company collaborator Joseph LoDuca’s musical score is way beyond the incredibly low expectations set by the film, and is even memorably catchy. Though still presented in double channel mono, the music is very well mixed, featuring relatively wide dynamic ranges, and good bass support.
The extras start with two audio commentary tracks. The first features writer/director Josh Becker and co-writer Bruce Campbell. This track was available on Anchor Bay’s original DVD release, and generally meets the expectations set by other commentaries featuring Bruce Campbell. Becker is a bit awkward, but Campbell is an old hand at the process, and wisely acts as a moderator/interviewer, drawing information out of Becker and making him a solid participant. For the most part, however, Campbell is the star, recalls more information, and is generally a better story teller. He’s especially on-point while discussing almost unrelated anecdotes, which makes sense, considering he was not a particularly huge part of the production. All in all a very good and plenty informative track. The second track is new, and features actor Brian Schulz and DVD producer/moderator Michael Felsher. Schulz is game and full of info, and Felsher is a good interviewer, but this track runs out of steam pretty early in the game, despite Felsher’s strongest efforts.
Next up is Made in Michigan: The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except (32:00, HD), a well-produced retrospective featurette including footage from Becker’s 8mm films (some staring Campbell), and interviews with Becker, co-writer/producer Scott Spiegel, production assistant/effects man Brian Rae, production manager David Goodman, and actors Tim Quill, John Manfredi, Robert Rickman and Ted Raimi. Subject matter covers the film’s genesis, production, casting, filming, special effects, LoDuca’s music, the retitling, the big action scenes, and it’s semi-successful release. This is followed by the entire Stryker’s War 8mm film (48:20, HD), here for the sake of comparison. Surprisingly enough Stryker’s War shows signs of being the better film despite its major budget shortcomings. Much of this has to do with the fact that Bruce Campbell is a pretty good actor, but generally speaking the dynamic qualities of the film are a little better put together, and the ‘Nam scenes in particular hold more dramatic weight (though without the larger scale action). The audio and video quality is a bit sad, but not to the point that the film is somehow unwatchable. It also appears that Sam Raimi is playing three roles in this thing, and the appeal of watching Campbell and Raimi battling is too much to turn down.
Also on the disc is an alternate title sequence (1:20, HD), a deleted scene with optional commentary from Becker (:45. SD), a new interview with Bruce Campbell, conducted at his home in Oregon (8:50, SD), and the original trailer.
Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except isn’t any kind of lost classic, but it’s still a fun time, and fans will adore this new Blu-ray release. The video quality is just about as sharp as a nearly 30 year old 16mm flick can possibly appear, and the generally lo-fi sound is treated well, but the best news is the extras, which include two commentaries (one brand new), a solid retrospective featurette, and a complete version of director Josh Becker’s original 8mm version of the film, Stryker’s War, which stars a young Bruce Campbell, and is arguably a better film.
* Note: The images on this page are taken from the included DVD copy, and are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 10th April 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Director and Co-Writer Commentary, Star Commentary, Made in MichiganL The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, Bruce Campbell Interview, Deleted Scene with Option Director's Commentary, Alternate Title Sequence, Original 8mm Film Styker's War, Trailer, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Josh Becker
Cast: Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Scott Spiegel, Brian Schulz
Length: 83 minutes
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