Saturday, 27 September 2014

The BFI Werner Herzog DVD Collection Disc 1

Werner Herzog is one of my all time favourite directors. Ever since watching his take on NOSFERATU, I knew I was hooked. Exploring both his fictional and documentary films, you will find a fascinating body of work. Sure, some of his opinions I really don’t agree with (I’m talking about you, INTO THE ABYSS and DEATH ROW) but wether you agree with the content or not, a film with Herzog’s name on it will at least touch you in one way. The British Film Institute recently released a 10 disc box set of some of Herzog’s films. Over the coming weeks (and maybe months) I will be going  through each disc here on the blog. Part review. Part retrospective. Hopefully you will join me on my Herzogian journey. Wether you are a fan of Herzog or a newcomer to his work, I hope you at least get something out of this.

(Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)

“I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me?”

The year is 1560. A group of Spanish conquistadors and their Indian slaves, lead by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), are on a journey through the beautiful, yet deadly terrain of the Andes mountains. They are in search of the kingdom of gold, El Dorado. Unbeknownst to them, it’s a myth created by the newly conquered Indians. Whilst battling the rugged landscape, lives are lost and the expedition comes to a halt. Gonzalo gives Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) a week to venture on a head to see what is in store. He makes Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) the second command. What follows is a descent into madness for Aguirre. After members of Ursuúa’s group are killed at the hands of an unseen enemy (amongst other things), becoming increasingly frustrated, Aguirre stages a mutiny and orders the surviving members of the group to join him on finding the mythical riches. Death follows Aguirre round every corner, even at his own hand. Those who survive slowly become feverish and begin to believe everything they see and hear right up until the end, where Aguirre’s small army and sick daughter are stranded on a raft. Everyone dies when they are bombarded with arrows except Aguirre. Insane, isolated and surrounded by death, Aguirre’s raft becomes overrun with monkeys and together, they slowly drift off down the river.
 What a fantastic way to start off this box set. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is nothing short of a masterpiece. On a technical level, the film is beautiful to behold. The breathtaking landscape of the Peruvian mountains and jungle are shot beautifully by Thomas Mauch. The visuals are complimented perfectly by the equally breathtaking (and not to mention haunting) score by Popol Vuh. Herzog’s documentary style overall is nothing short of spectacular. It’s often rough in places, but you get thrown in to the situation playing out on screen. Klaus Kinski steals every scene he is in, and you really get the sense that Kinski doesn’t just believe he is the character Aguirre, but also a God like figure. The electricity in his eyes is almost as ferocious as his performance.The story itself is loosely based on the accounts of Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish Domican monk as well as the life of Aguirre himself. It’s a very well written story but overall, it’s Kinski’s performance and the location that really hold the power of this film. Aspiring filmmakers, take note. 

(Die beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreuz)

“Attacking is good, but living is better, even in poverty.”

This short film from 1966 sees four men breaking into and abandoned castle in Deutschkreutz. The castle was the site of a battle between German and Russian soldiers during World War II. The men discover old military uniforms and hardware. They proceed to act out drills, training and eventually battles. Of course, there is no emery and Herzog claims that his film is “A satire on the state of war and peace and the absurdities it inspires.”. The film is essentially silent except for the use of voice over. It’s a very simple film and crude in some regards. You can clearly see Herzog slowly perfecting his craft with this one. It’s a pleasure to see early short work of Herzog.

 LAST WORDS (1968)
(Letze Worte)

“They tell me to say no, but I won’t even say that.”

Last words is a very strange short film indeed. Filmed in two days on the island of Spinalonga island and Crete, Last Words tells the story of the last man to leave Spinalonga. The film is told through accounts of the locals and those involved in relocating the man to Crete. We find out that Spinalonga was a leper colony and that the man, as a result of being forcibly removed, flat out refuses to talk to people. He can seen during the evening however, playing the lyre in a local pub. What makes Last Words so intriguing is its unusual narrative structure. Characters repeat their lines multiple times, often in long takes. Overall, a very unusual and enjoyable short.

(Massnamen gegen Fanatiker)

“I would like to protect the horses from fanatics.”

The next short on the disc is another quirky one that showcases Herzog’s humour. It was also the first film Herzog shot in colour. Basically, the short is about various people at a racetrack in Munich who like to protect horses from fanatical fans. This includes an oddball played by Mario Adorf who demonstrates his favourite punching technique, man who likes to walk horses round a tree for 36 hours and a young boy who, despite the track owners well wishes, wants to protects horses and then eventually resigns to protecting flamingos instead. To top it off, there’s an old man who interferes with each of their interviews and isn’t happy. This short is seen to be believed and is genuinely funny. 


“In Paradise, even gentiles move mountains.”

The final film included on the first disc isn’t a short film, but Herzog’s bizarre and often unnerving film, Fata Morgana. Shot in the Sahara desert, the film heavily relies on the image. Herzog and his cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein capture the vast landscape primarily by long tracking shots. The cinematography throughout is devastatingly effective. To accompany the striking visuals Lotte Eisner (in the German version) provides narration reciting Mayan creation myth. Some pieces of Leonard Cohen's work are also included. Overall, the film deals with idea of mirage (the definition of Fata Morgana) and you will often find yourself seeing things in the background. Aside from the landscape we find abandoned villagers, the corpses of animals and suspicious looking residents of the area. It’s possible to get lost within the film and many aspects are open to interpretation. If one thing is for certain, there is never a dull moment throughout the film. Newcomers to Herzog may want to watch this after viewing some of his more well known and accessible films. On a side note, the making of the film is just as interesting as the film itself and is well deserving of more research.

I'm not going to go in to the technical aspects of the DVD collection until the conclusion in the final post but I can say that all films look and sound brilliant. Extras on the first disc include English and German versions of Aguirre and Fata Morgana as well as commentaries for both. There is also a stills gallery as well as theatrical trailers. Overall, just by looking at the first disc alone, this set is very promising indeed. It's great to see Herzog's earlier short films as well as seeing his more notable efforts presented so well.

I hope you will join me for my second part in this series where I will be looking at the second disc.

You can buy this set from the BFI here, MovieMail here and Amazon UK here. Buying from the BFI directly means you can support the great work they do 100%. You can also pick up a gorgeous looking steelbook of Aguirre here and here.

To find out more about the BFI and some of their release check out their website here.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Vinegar Syndrome Review: Graduation Day (DVD Review)

(dir: Herb Freed, 1981)

"The Midvale Track Team Will Soon Be Running For Their Lives!"
 Laura, played very briefly by Ruth Ann Llorens (THE COMEBACK KID) is a talented high school track runner who meets her demise during a race, where she collapses and dies on the spot in front of her whole school (how embarrassing! Even more so due to the fact she won!) Fingers are immediately pointed towards Coach Michaels, played by the ever charming Christopher George (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE EXTERMINATOR) because he is a determined and often ruthless son of a gun! A couple of months pass and Laura's sister Anne, played by Patch Mackenzie (SERIAL, IT'S ALIVE 3) returns home from the Navy to honour her sister's graduation. Unfortunately, someone has put a spanner in the works... The track team are slowly getting picked off one by one by a mysterious killer wearing a fencing mask. Of course, the terror of a lunatic picking off most of the upcoming graduates means the celebrations must be put on hold right? Oh hell no! This is graduation! Bring on the keg!

 Who exactly is behind the carnage? Could it be the pushy coach taking his revenge on those who question his teaching style? Could it be Anne wreaking a revenge fuelled massacre against the students? Maybe it's even the violent boyfriend of Anne, played by E. Danny Murphy (TOMBOY, FINAL MISSION) who has lost it because he has lost his high school sweetheart? Will the festivities continue, or will the killer have ruined every student's favourite moment? You'll have to watch to find out. The body count is high, there is terror among campus and the Principal sure is pissed off at this damn inconvenience, poor guy!

 I'm just going to get this out of the way, I really don't like slasher movies as a whole. I enjoy horror films and I love giallo films so you'd think I would get a kick out of 70's and 80's slashers but I just don't. Graduation is one of the examples that just cements I dislike the genre. The film has it's moments but overall, it's just pretty damn boring and not even entertaining in an ironic way. Positives first. I really enjoyed the score. The track used in the opening montage is fantastically groovy. The score by Arthur Kempel (DOUBLE IMPACT, BEHIND ENEMY LINES) is used very effectively and there are some great moments of tension. Cinematography is also an enjoyable visual treat courtesy of Daniel Yarussi (TOMBOY, CALIFORNIA HEAT), especially the slow motion segments. Christopher George is always great, Patch Mackenzie has such presence and we are also treated to Linnea Quigley's wonderfully petite chest. Oh and there were maybe one or two genuinely nice deaths (I'm not going to be pole vaulting for a while). Aside from that, it's just a very generic slasher film. I can't really pick out too many because it's not awful, just extremely dull. Even the twists and turns can be seen a track field away.
Like I said, I can't rant on because it's not the worst slasher I have seen. I also can't complain about the treatment this film has received from Vinegar Syndrome. The film has received a 4k restoration and is presented in the OAR. I haven't seen the original Troma release but from what I can gather, the film is certainly a major upgrade. Aside from the high quality presentation, there is also an abundance of extra features. We get two commentary tracks, one with wirer and producer David Baughn (BEYOND EVIL) and the other with The Hysteria Continues team. You also get video interviews with Patch Mackenzie, Herb Freed (PARADISE LOST, BEYOND EVIL) and Jay Sadoff (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3, PINK NARCISSUS). Finally, you also get the original theatrical trailer. I have only managed to watch the DVD portion of the combo pack but from scans I have seen of the blu-ray print... This is one hell of a clean up job. If you are a fan of this film or love slashers, this is an essential purchase. Did I mention it was region free?

You can buy the blu-ray and DVD combo directly from Vinegar Syndrome here as well as your favourite online retailers.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Vinegar Syndrome: Runaway Nightmare Limited Edition Bluray / DVD

(dir: Mike Cartel, 1982)

"...when your dream becomes a reality, it's a runaway nightmare"

 Ralph, played by director Mike Cartel (PETS, THE OUTSIDER) and his buddy Jason, played by Al Valletta (THE INCREDIBLE HULK, ALLEY CAT) are just a couple of guys who live in Nevada and run a worm farm (.... you can just smell the American Dream right there). One day, whilst shooting and catching some rays, they see two shady characters dumping a chest. They soon discover there is a body of a naked young girl who lays unconscious. This is Fate, played by Seeska Vanderberg (BITTER HERITAGE). The guys take her back to the farm to nurse her back to health until they are ambushed and kidnapped by a commune of foxy female cultists (THAT'S the American Dream right there right!?) lead by a woman named Hespiria, played by Cindy Donlan (SCHIZOID). After some bizarre initiations, the men become members and are enlisted in the task of stealing a suitcase of platinum from the mafia. Of course, being the only me, seems like it's not just the platinum that some of chicks want to get a hold of. OK, that's as far as I am willing to go with a synopsis because this film is out there man and there are many twists to the tale (not all make sense) for you to enjoy.

So what did I think of this piece of cult cinema? I have no idea! This is one of those films that falls perfectly in to the weird and wacky world of psychotronic cinema. You are either going to adore this, or find it a bot too hokey and camp. For me personally, there were some genuinely enjoyable and out there moments but overall, I just didn't dig it as much as I thought I would. For a film made in 1982, it sure had that feel of a late 60's or early 70's piece of hokey exploitation.... Which is always hit and miss for me. It's something you would expect to see being released by Something Weird back in the day. It wasn't a bad film by any means, not just my cup of tea. If you like absurd moments in your films, you will get a kick out of this. There is a massive cocktail of genres in here. There's thriller, dark comedy and even surrealist touches throughout. Like I said, this IS a psychotronic film in every shape and form. If you stay with this film right to end, you will see EXACTLY what I mean.

Vinegar Syndrome initially released this as a limited to 1000 bluray and DVD combo pack. Even though it's sold out on the Vinegar Syndrome store, you can still pick this combo up from Diabolik. If you don't want to pay extra for the limited edition combo, you can also pick up the regular DVD release which is still widely available. I can only watch DVDs as I refuse to upgrade to bluray and I can safely say, you won't be disappointed as once again, Vinegar Syndrome have done a stellar job with the presentation, that being said, one can only imagine how much nicer the bluray looks. The film is restored in 4k from original elements and is presented in its OAR. On the disc you get a commentary that is entertaining and informative as well as alternate scenes from a VHS copy of the film (basically inserts of lots of tit shots) which has its own fun story on its own. As you can see down below, the film has a wonderful release.
 Overall, this is a great release for fans of quirky cult cinema. The film is not for everyone but for fans this is a must. Maybe a few more on disc special features would have been nice, but the fact that such an obscure film like this is being presented in 4K is reason to pick it up. There's definitely replay value and it's a perfect film to throw on with some good friends, pizza and of course, beer. Give it a try, this could be a revelation!

You can buy the limited edition from Diabolik here, the DVD version is available directly from Vinegar Syndrome here as well as your favourite online retailers. If you keep checking back with Vinegar Syndrome, more copies of the limited edition may become available.

There is an official website dedicated to all things Runaway Nightmare here if you want to know more.

Vinegar Syndrome Website
Vinegar Syndrome Youtube