BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Dec 15th, 2001 •

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You think big budget classics like THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE GODFATHER are the last words in DVD’s? Both films enjoy a rich, crisp digital transfer to this new home medium. Every detail their directors toiled over is there, and pointed out in additional how-to documentaries and audio commentaries found on these discs. But what about those fun no-budget films that made 60’s and 70’s drive-ins weekend highlight? They, too, are here on DVD, with incredible clarity, and beautiful, bold color transfers. These films are so clear, it’s like taking a time travel trip to the mid 60’s.

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (1966) and STING OF DEATH (1967) Both Directed by William Grefe Something Weird Video Released by Image Entertainment

One of my favorite drive-in classics has to be a 1966 gem made in Florida, DEATH CURSE OF TARTU. Something Weird Video, the wonderful distribution company that revived such great LBJ-era thrills as SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY and THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP for videocassette, has continued their grand tradition on DVD. They took the trouble to grab hold of an original 35mm negative and give it the best possible Digital transfer.

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU concerns a group of young, under-equipped archeologists venturing deep into the Florida everglades in search of Tartu’s tomb. Tartu is a long dead Indian who protects his tomb by allowing his spirit to take the form of dangerous animals. It’s sort of like a cross between THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and ANIMAL PLANET. Whenever Tartu’s murderous spirit is nearby, the soundtrack is filled with chanting, yipping Indians. On the same disc is another Sunshine State shocker by the same director, William Grefe – STING OF DEATH. STING involves a large jellyfish that attacks young scientists. Only here the jellyfish looks very much like a heavy-duty garbage bag.

Grefe, along with Frank Henenloter, (cult filmmaker and Something Weird’s resident film restorer) provide commentary tracks for both films. It’s either fun or disturbing to hear director Grefe become surprised at elements of his own work. “Look, they’re swimming through the swamps!” Grefe gasps as two of TARTU’s cast members bathe in the everglades. “What were they thinking?” Both TARTU and STING have lengthy dance scenes. Was there a Florida Statute in 1966 requiring all film productions filmed there to include teenagers doing the dip, the bunny-hop, or whatever? STING features young Neil Sedaka introducing a dance (that did not sweep the nation) and a song called “The Jellyfish.” This disc even comes with a print-out of the lyrics (“Forget Your Cinderella, and do the Jella… The jilla-jalla jella…”) DVD’s really bring out the run and shoot aspects of low budget filmmaking. Hand held work is accented with DVD’s clarity. This clarity also shows off shifts in film stocks, where grainy stock footage is cut with staged fine-grain action. During a scene in TARTU where a shark cruises up to some swimmers, Grefe points out the shark footage was given to him by Ivan Tors, who was the leading film-maker in Florida at the time.

PRIMITIVE LOVE (1964) Dir: Luigi Scattini Cast: Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay, Franco Franchi, and Ciccio Ingrassia And MONDO BALORDO (1967) Dir: Roberto Blanci Montero Cast: Boris Karloff (Narrator) Something Weird Video Released by Image Entertainment

PRIMITIVE LOVE, a strange Italian sex comedy, concerns two bungling hotel bellhops played by Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, a team of bargain basement Euro Jerry Lewis imitators. They will do anything, I mean anything, to sneak a peek at one their new guests, a buxom, bleach-blonde beauty (Jayne Mansfield). About halfway through the film, Jayne invites a guest to her swanky hotel room. She takes out an 8mm projector and shows him rather mild footage of African natives. (I think once or twice we see bare-breasted native ladies. Hence the title of this movie?) This National geographic-esque footage takes up a chunk of PRIMITIVE LOVE’s 77 minute running time. After the lengthy film showing, Jayne does a striptease for her guest. She happily continues the strip tease even after she uncovers the spastic Franco and Ciccio spying on her.

A favorite of 1960’s drive-ins were “Mondo” films. These documentaries ripped the lids off the ways far-off cultures used sex and violence in entertainment, religion and eating habits. The first of these films was the widely successful and lowbrow MONDO CANE (1963). Mondo films resembled a mix of the Playboy Channel and home movie vacation footage. The Italian made MONDO BALORDO, whose tagline promises “intimate shocking scenes of love – man’s insatiable hunger..” was slightly reshaped for salivating American consumption. A lively Boris Karloff provides the often humorous narration.

We travel with Boris to all sorts of hidden corners of our weird, kooky world. First we see an Italian rock group in full swing. Their lead singer is Franz Drago, a frantic, almost acrobatic 27-inch tall volcano of energy. Then it’s off to Las Vegas, to see Beauty Pageant footage lensed by a boob-obsessed cinematographer. Next stop, a photo session of Asian girls in bondage. “This is for magazines for readers of special tastes…” Karloff purrs. Some of the footage, featuring natives tearing apart hunted animals may turn off some viewers. (Hey, the Mondo films were meant to shock.) An actual African exorcism where a live chicken is consumed, instructions on how to behave at a drunken transvestite party, and a poverty stricken Italian town where citizens visit the cemetery to ask the dead to cast spells on enemies and choose winning lotto numbers, fill the bill. After watching this film, you will think the world is filled only with chicken-eating, gambling drag queens! One scene in BALORDO shows a European freak show where Mr. Karloff tells us “Sometimes the people buying the tickets are the freaks.” Tell it like it is Boris!

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE Dir and Prod: Tobe Hooper Cast: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, and Allan Danziger 1974 Pioneer (Special Edition DVD) ‘Texas Chainsaw! The best horror film ever made! Why?! So real!” “Mindless and Fun Entertainment!” Two friends of mine named Richie while discussing horror film history over breakfast.

Perhaps one of the most famous drive-in shockers was Director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, now available on a Pioneer Special Edition DVD, complete with out-takes, pieces off the workprint, and an excellent audio commentary track by Hooper, his cinematographer, Daniel Pearl and star Gunnar Hansen. The gore is more implied than displayed, but it’s CHAINSAW’s unforgiving documentary style that grabs you and disturbs your dreams. Check out the neat Special Features on this incredible DVD. The out-takes have a raw look, the color is not yet timed, and all we get is the bare, hollow sound typical of un-mixed production sound. We see endless takes of human bone decoration that highlights the crazy cannibal house in CHAINSAW. There are many takes of the macabre cemetery bone statue, the image that opens CHAINSAW. The audio commentary tells us that Hooper and Pearl experimented by shooting the scene during different times during the day, to obtain different sunlit shooting schemes.

CHAINSAW’s priceless audio commentary track tells us all about the most gruesome and prolonged scene in the film, where a family of homicidal kooks let their intended endlessly screaming victim (Marilyn Burns) join then at the dinner table. According to Hooper, a tight schedule forced them into an unforgiving 28 hour long shooting session. Hooper and Gunner Hansen (who has well earned a sure place in film history as the muderous, chirping Leatherface) tell us that by the end of this intense marathon, everybody really felt they became their characters between takes. Poor Ms. Burns really felt like she was a doomed victim whose only defense was to scream. Gunner began to think that he was a big overpowering brute who only wanted to kill and chirp. (A bit of CHAINSAW trivia. Gunner Hansen was only a 17-year old Icelandic immigrant at the time of filming. Today he is a very sweet and funny computer engineer.)

FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS Dir: Hugo Grimaldi (US version) Kurt Maetzig (original German version) Screenplay by: J. Barkhauer and Jan Fethke Cast: Yoko Tani, Oldrich Lukes, Ignacy Machowski, and Tang Hua-Ta 1962 Image Entertainment

“You are there… on man’s most incredible journey” is the tag-line for FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, a visually wacky space exploration film first released in America in 1962. FIRST SPACESHIP| is a 78 American dubbed version of DER SCHWEIGENDE STERN, a 130-minute German sci-fi film made in 1959. Based on Stanislev Lem’s novel “The Astronauts”, this was the first German sci-fi film made after World War II

A meteor fragment is found to have discarded radio signals from Venus, so an international team of scientists travels in a sleek George Jetson style rocket to our “sister planet”. Presented here in letterbox format, in generally bold storybook like color, VENUS makes it DVD debut courtesy of Wade Williams. Mr. Williams is a valuable modern day video and film distributor who has kept a running supply of Edward Wood movies and other drive in treats on video shelves. The cinematography by Joachim Hasler displays Venus as a planet alive with primary colors. Some elements are sure to make DVD buyers giggle. The surviving inhabitants of Venus are tiny, spidery and bounce around, resembling cat’s toys on strings. The workmen who help rocket blast off and return all have enormous letters on their chest, making them look like escapees from an Alpha-Bits commercial.

Most drive-in films like FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS only made it to VHS from slightly worn 16mm prints and/or okay video transfers. These DVD editions help eliminate the adjectives of “cheap” or “cheesy” from these low budget thrills of yesterday.

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