Uncle Sam (US - BD RA)
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Some may ask why 1997’s practically straight to video, and generally unloved, Uncle Sam deserves a high definition Blu-ray treatment, while so many other exploitation classics continue languishing on Blue Underground’s shelves. It’s a valid question, and I have a simple answer—Blue Underground is run by Bill Lustig, who besides rescuing exploitation films from obscurity, has directed many of his own, including Maniac, Vigilante and (wait for it) Uncle Sam. Based on last month’s City of the Living Dead and Django Blu-rays alone, I’d say Lustig and Blue Underground have earned a lot of patience. The story follows Sgt. Sam Harper (David Shark Fralick), who is killed by friendly fire during the first Gulf War, and sent home to his family in a giant tin coffin. Sam is rustled from his eternal slumber when a group of teenagers burn an American flag over his grave, and rises to exact right-wing, All American vengeance on draft dodgers, corrupt politicians and tax evaders in the guise of the kindly American mascot Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam is nowhere near an important destination on the great American exploitation movie highway, but it is an interesting little roadside outhouse. The film comes out of a remarkably unfriendly era for war drama, revenge horror, and straight-faced slasher violence. It’s anachronistic, but unlike the teeth gnashing horror films of the post-Vietnam era, it just barely recalls modern political climates. There are also so few notable horror films from the era that the film’s brand of anachronisms feel more alien. No one working in horror today is trying to pay homage to STV horror from the post-modern Scream era. Had Lustig made the film in the post-9/11 era, or even better, following George Bush Jr.’s second term, Uncle Sam probably would’ve been better received, or at least noticed upon release. Seen through modern eyes the film’s politics, which are pushed to semi-ridiculous heights, seem downright quant. Remember when the first Gulf War seemed like a big deal, friendly fire was still reported by the mainstream media, and anti-war types were protesting the military actions of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton? Seems like a thousand years ago, doesn’t it?
Lustig’s direction is surprisingly flat, and the script is front loaded with a lot of non-horror, dialogue heavy character establishment. This makes for an extremely slow first act, that resembles something of a made for television, veteran themed movie of the week. There’s very little of Lustig’s brand of gritty, post-noir horror, or Cohen’s brand of sardonic wit, even in the more horror-centric latter acts, which is too bad, because the concept is ripe for both. There’s something inherently funny about an Uncle Sam killer who is offended by anti-Americanism, and given the right circumstances this same concept could be genuinely disturbing, as blindly idealistic people are genuinely frightening. Lustig captures some of visual flair once the supernatural elements kick in and manages to pay effective homage to his genre favourites. The first real kill scene starts with a Tenebre inspired crane shot, and moves on to some Bava-worthy smoky atmosphere. Later he tosses an effective Carpenter nod, and starts abstractly backlighting his monster like James Whale.
Like most of Lustig’s films, Uncle Sam features a cast of B-movie all-starts, and the recognizable faces all put in some decently hammy performances. There was a bit of a difference in this case in that Bo Hopkins, Isaac Hayes and PJ Soles hadn’t been working in the public eye on a regular basis for almost a decade (Tarantino had just tried to revive Robert Forster for Jackie Brown at the time), which places the ‘stars’ firmly in the nostalgia vein Rob Zombie has repeatedly tapped over the years. The rest of the cast is either entirely adequate in a made for television fashion, or downright bad in an even embarrassing for the type fashion. Performances really haven’t ever been the strong point of any of Lustig’s films, save of course Maniac, but Uncle Sam features so little else in terms of story or atmosphere the it hard to escape how stilted everyone is. This adds to the unfortunate ‘made for television’ sheen, as does the misplaced moralistic streak that makes sure Cohen and Lustig, both kings of controversy and moral bankruptcy, explain that Sam is evil and wrong. Even as a self-avowed bleeding heart liberal I’d much prefer a more genuine grindhouse approach to the material, one where the proper text tells us its okay to root for Sam, and audiences are left to delve into the possibility of satire and subtext. In other words, I’d prefer a film that Roger Ebert would rail against before realizing years after the fact he just didn’t get the joke.
There’s long been a part of me that suspected Bill Lustig set out to separate himself from Anchor Bay with Blue Underground simply to get a widescreen release of Uncle Sam on the market. The film is shot using Lustig’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the framing is such that a full frame representation wouldn’t do the composition any favours. Being released in the post-grindhouse, pre-DVD ‘90s Uncle Sam was doomed to full frame VHS representation upon its initial release. I’ve never actually watched the DVD release, but assume it was a Godsend for fans. This new Blu-ray release must just be the icing on the cake.
Based on the film’s relatively recent vintage, and on Lustig’s penchant for preserving everyone else’s grindhouse trash, I can’t say the quality of this 1080p transfer is surprising. The frame is plenty grainy, but the grain is small in size, and very easy to overlook. Sharp edges are occasionally mired by a touch of jagged noise, and the big, deep-set traveling shots feature some minor edge-enhancement. The film is colourful, but the pastel wardrobes and sets are a bit washed out by brighter lighting schemes, seemingly on purpose. The last act, with its lower light, darker backgrounds, and neon key-lights, is the best looking section of the whole film. Colour separation is relatively clean, though some of the brighter reds bleed a bit, which can be a problem when this many American flags are such an integral visual element. Lustig shots most of the film in medium close-ups, with relatively shallow focus, so there isn’t an excess of detail in the frame, but things are sharp mostly beyond DVD capabilities.
Blue Underground presents Uncle Sam in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio, and the effect is about what you’d expect from the film, though I have to say I’m a little disappointed based on the studio’s past work (especially since they likely had original stereo surround tracks to work from this time around). The centered vocals are all over the place in terms of clarity and volume levels. At first I thought this was just a lowly mixed track, but the sound effects and music, not to mention dialogue that comes from outside the center channel, are all sizably louder, and much more consistent. The centered stuff also features some unfortunate bits of high end distortion. There are a few surprisingly expressive stereo and surround work-outs, mostly stemming from supernatural moments, and including a comic book battle as heard through a child’s imagination. The climax features some punchy LFE effects in the form of gunshots, canon fire, and improbably explosions. The music, which is synth based, pretends to be symphonic, but is pretty thin on the track, featuring little LFE support, outside of the brief live act that plays during the party scene.
The extras here appear to match Blue Underground’s previous DVD release of Uncle Sam, and begin with two audio commentary tracks. The first track features director William Lustig, writer Larry Cohen, and producer George G. Braunstein. This is a very quiet, slow track, with less actual information than I was expecting. There are some important factoids, but a lot of the discussion revolves around the modern application of the film (during the 2004 recording), and the usual hard luck tales of getting independent films financed. When Cohen speaks up his words the whole track perks up, but Braunstein is almost embarrassing, at one point remarking on how good that ‘one black actor is’. The second track features Lustig with and actor Isaac Hayes. This track mostly features Lustig talking to Hayes about the making of the film, and Hayes either politely pretending he knows what Lustig is talking about, or giggling and backing up his statements. When Hayes is on screen his input picks up, and it’s clear he actually remembers quite a bit about the production, but overall this is the William Lustig show. Between the two tracks there isn’t an excess of overlap, but the second track is definitely the more listenable, buoyant, and informative.
‘Fire Stunts’ (09:50, SD) is a brief chunk of behind the scenes footage from the climactic explosion and fire stunts. The raw video footage is mixed with footage from the film, and overdubbed commentary from stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos. Turns out that final explosion blew up a bunch windows throughout the surrounding neighborhood. The disc also features a single deleted scene (00:00:50, SD), presented as a series of raw takes, a gag reel, or rather a series of clips that imply pedophilia out of context (00:00:40, SD), the original trailer (00:01:30 HD), and a poster and still gallery.
I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy Bill Lustig’s Uncle Sam as a horror film or a satire. Had Larry Cohen’s concept been implemented some time in the post-9/11 era the film might have worked politically, and might have been a more genuinely, joyously exploitation feast, complete with hard violence. There are moments of inspired lunacy, and a solid cast, but for the most part Uncle Sam is a pretty dull experience. This Blu-ray release doesn’t look or sound perfect, or even as surprisingly impressive as many of Blue Underground’s previous releases, but it is an upgrade over the DVD release.
* 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.
Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 29th June 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director, Writer and Producer Commentary, Director and Actor Commentary, Fire Stunts, Deleted Scene, Bloopers, Trailer, Stills and Poster Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: William Lustig
Cast: Bo Hopkins, Timothy Bottoms, Robert Forster, P.J. Soles, William Smith, and Isaac Hayes
Length: 90 minutes
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