Now On Blu-ray: Arrow Video Dominates 2013, Mario Bava, FOXY BROWN, BLOW OUT, MOTEL HELL, SPIDER BABY
Mario Bava's Black Sabbath and Baron Blood
Shortly after Kino started releasing classic Bava films on Blu-ray in the US, Arrow Video started doing the same in the UK. One may have assumed that it would just be a matter of which region you lived in as to which edition would suffice. However, over the last year or so, Arrow Video has left Kino in the dust on these Blu-ray editions in more ways than one, and these two latest releases are no different.
Black Sabbath is probably best known as the film in which Mario Bava was able to work with horror icon Boris Karloff. The film is among the finest anthologies of the '60s, and became a benchmark by which others were measured. Arrow Video released their edition several months in advance of the upcoming Kino disc, but now having both in hand, I can say that there's no reason to wait if you are Region B capable. Not only is the image restored, cleaner, and colored correctly on the Arrow Video edition, it blows Kino's away in terms of the actual content.
Black Sabbath, like most, if not all, of Bava's films was re-edited for US release. The Kino edition only presents the international version of the film, while Arrow Video presents both that version and the original Three Faces of Terror Italian version of the film on both Blu-ray and DVD. That, in and of itself, is a no-brainer for Bava fans. Add to that the Tim Lucas commentary, an introduction by Alan Jones, a featurette exploring the differences between the two versions, and an interview with star Mark Damon, along with the amazing booklet featuring essays from Tim Lucas, David Cairns, and an interview with legendary head of AIP Sam Arkoff, and this might be reason enough on its own to go region free.
Then there is Baron Blood, which was among the early waves of Kino Bava releases, and seemed decent enough at the time. However, Arrow Video, again brings the thunder and releases not two, but three different versions of the film on Blu-ray and DVD. This is a pattern that they started with their insanely comprehensive edition of Black Sunday, and one that makes Arrow clearly stand out from the pack when it comes to the care taken with these amazing films.
The extras are, again, another place where Arrow makes mincemeat out of Kino's effort. While they share the archival Tim Lucas commentary track, Arrow adds another intro from Alan Jones, more interviews with contemporaries like Ruggero Deodato, and a photo gallery of Bava at work behind the scenes along with their amazing booklet again. There is no comparison between the two editions, and this has been the case for every Bava film that both companies have shared. It makes me hope that Arrow can get their hands on Hatchet for the Honeymoon and Rabid Dogs, which are also on Blu-ray from Kino.
Both of these are must-own discs for Bava fans. If you aren't region free yet, you have to do it now!
Jack Hill's Spider Baby and Foxy Brown
The '70s exploitation film scene had a king, and his name was Jack Hill. Jack Hill didn't make a ton of movies, but the ones he made were top of the heap. He began his career with the bizarre black comedy Spider Baby, which went largely unseen for decades after its release due to legal entanglements with the producers. However, its rediscovery in the '80s and to a larger degree in the '90s with the advent of special edition DVDs and boutique labels focusing on cult classics, Spider Baby has begun to receive its due.
Spider Baby is the story of the isolated Merrye family, a pathetic crew of lovable but dangerously unstable and borderline inhuman savages suffering from a unique medical syndrome which forces sufferers to regress into pre-civilized states. Looking over the family is their gentle caretaker, played with genuine warmth by horror legend Lon Chaney, Jr. The film also features the big screen debut of future cult star Sid Haig. The film is funny, creepy, and a fantastically out there piece of exploitation history that cannot be missed.
The Blu-ray edition looks far better than I'd ever expected. Hill's back and white photography looks superb and the bouncy score has never sounded better. Spider Baby is a film that has had a few special edition DVDs and Arrow has collected and ported over many, if not all, of the special features created for those various DVDs. These include a commentary with Hill and Haig, a featurette about composer Ronald Stein, The Hatching of Spider Baby - an archival featurette with interviews from Hill, Haig, Mary Mitchel, Joe Dante, and more, as well a location visits and a ton more. Spider Baby is a wonderful and fun little film that finally has the edition it has always deserved.
About a decade after the brief theatrical release of Spider Baby, Jack Hill was a big name in drive-in fare, and he was one of the finest creators of black action (Blaxploitation) in the US. The apex of his Blaxploitation career may have been Foxy Brown, a pseudo-sequel to Coffy, both starring the luscious and charismatic Pam Grier, the queen of the black action scene. Foxy Brown takes everything that people love about black action films and turns it up to ten, and Grier's fearlessly sexy and aggressive performance is a powerhouse that has yet to find an equal.
When Foxy Brown loses her undercover-agent brother to a drug feud, she's not about to take it laying down. Grier hacks, slashes, shoots, and gouges her way through the seedy underworld on the way to revenge for her brother's murder. Foxy Brown is non-stop amazing fun, and just the kind of black action/wish-fulfillment cinema that '70s African American audiences needed as they were fighting their way out of the civil rights movement. These audiences needed a hero to cheer on, and Foxy was just such a woman, and she delivers!
This Blu-ray edition is pretty darned good, though not quite the revelation of Spider Baby. The image quality is nice, though it can't quite manage to overcome the look of '70s color film in that it is really grainy and never quite looks as perfect as a bigger budget film might look. Though, having seen the film on VHS and DVD before, I can say with some authority that Foxy Brown has never looked this good. In addition to a solid A/VB presentation, Arrow again provides plenty of context to go along with the film. We get another Jack Hill commentary, interviews with Sid Haig, Fred Williamson, Austin Stoker, and Howard S Berger, along with a killer Jack Hill trailer reel, and the amazing booklet featuring an essay from Josiah Howard and an interview with Pam Grier. Again, this cannot be beat. You need a region free player!
Brian De Palma's Blow Out
I'm a latecomer to Brian De Palma's work. Of course I'd seen Scarface a few times in my teenage years, and I'd seen The Untouchables, but the faithful De Palma fans would argue - correctly - that it is his early '70s-early '80s work that is the real core of what Brian De Palma was as a filmmaker. I hate to say "was", but having seen many of his later works, I have to call it like I see it. The man has lost his magic, it seems, and that is brought into increasingly clear relief with every abomination he throws at us as time goes on.
Thankfully, no matter how bad De Palma's films may be today, that doesn't change the fact that he was a force of nature in his younger years, and Blow Out is proof of that. Released between his cross-dressing serial killer flick, Dressed to Kill, and the film for which he'll mostly likely be remembered forever (for better or worse), Scarface, Blow Out is an infinitely more competent and mature film than either of its bookends. Inspired by films like Coppola's The Conversation and Antonioni's Blow Up, Blow Out follows a sound recordist played brilliantly by John Travolta, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and captures audio of a political assassination. Now he's a man wanted by a very dangerous crew, and he's got a very lucky survivor in tow, De Palma's then wife Nancy Allen as a lady of the night hired to entertain the assassination victim. Things get twisted very quickly as people surrounding the events start to die and Travolta's hero has to put the puzzle together very quickly or lose his own life.
You may recall that two yeas ago Blow Out was released in a meticulous edition by The Criterion Collection, and most of the time that would be enough to sate any serious fan. However, in this case Arrow Video seems to have done the impossible, they've put up a true competitor to the Criterion edition, something which only the UK's Masters of Cinema was able to do before. Not bad for a little cult label! The A/V is spotless and sounds amazing. For a film whose main character is a recordist, the sound is extremely important, and they nail it. The extras are, again, amazing. They include an interview with legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, one with Nancy Allen, and one with producer George Litto. as well as an amazing booklet featuring essays and conversations with Quentin Tarantino, Brian De Palma, and Michael Atkinson. If you have the capability to play Region B discs, this should definitely be in your collection.
Like many film fans in their mid-late '30s, I was brought up the VHS boom of the '80s. As many of those kids would tell you, it was all about the horror box covers in those days, and Motel Hell was one of the greats. The American Gothic styled imagery above the screaming heads of the victims intrigued me, and this film very quickly became a favorite, a film I'd rent over and over. Never in a million years did I think I'd ever see my favorite Motel slasher on Blu-ray, let alone in such an amazing edition.
Motel Hell features cowboy hero Rory Calhoun (The Texan) in the lead as Farmer Vincent, the proprietor of the Motel Hello and purveyor of fine meats. As their motto goes, "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters!", and they aren't lying. Visitors to the Motel Hello often find themselves unable to leave, while many others visit only to pick up Vincent's fine sausages, it seems like no one ever really gets away! When a pretty young girl catches Farmer Vincent's eye, he takes her under his wing (much to the chagrin of his portly sister) and attempts to bring her into the lifestyle. When Vincent's brother, a local policeman, begins snooping around, it spells the beginning of the end for the business, but not before an amazingly insane chainsaw fight.
As I've come to expect from the newly redesigned and revamped Arrow Video, the A/V presentation is immaculate. This film, from 1980, looks about as good as can be expected from the cheap, slow film stock available in that year. The audio is also pretty solid, though nothing to crow about. It's definitely an upgrade from my VHS and DVD copies (especially since the DVD has been out of print in the USA for years). Arrow outdoes themselves again with a fine featurette on females in horror, anchored by our very own Shelagh Rowan-Legg, who is clearly the ace in the hole for this talking head piece providing meaningful and thoughtful insight into the phenomenon of female horror villains/heroines over the years. There is also an audio commentary with director Kevin Connor as well as interviews with stars Paul Linke and Rosanne Katon, and a few other interviews that make this a more than comprehensive edition of a classic early '80s slasher that inspired many to come. Add to all of that the excellent booklet and surprisingly good cover art from Jeff Zornow (of whom I am not generally a fan), and you can't beat this with a stick! Definitely recommended, and remember: Meat's meat and man's gotta eat!