Thursday, June 28, 2012

New on Blu-ray: RED SCORPION (1989) and TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973)

(US - 1989)

An expensive, controversial box office bomb that became a hit in video stores, RED SCORPION now gets the deluxe Blu-ray treatment from Synapse Films.  It looks fantastic, far better than what's essentially an over-budget Golan-Globus ripoff should look (and with MISSING IN ACTION/INVASION U.S.A. director Joseph Zito onboard, it really does feel like Cannon).  Dolph Lundgren is Soviet Spetsnaz killing machine Nikolai Rachenko, ordered by his commander General Vortek (STRAW DOGS' T.P. McKenna) to go to the (fictional) African country of Mombaka (a stand-in for Angola) and assassinate Sundata (Rubin Nthodi), the leader of a group of anti-Communist rebels.  Sure enough, Rachenko realizes who the real oppressors are and with the help of a grizzled American journalist (M. Emmet Walsh), Sundata's right-hand man (Al White), and an elderly bushman named Gao (played by 95-year-old Regopstaan, an actual bushman), turns his back on his country and fights with the rebels, taking on the forces of Vortek, Cuban Col. Zayas (Carman Argenziano) and generic Commie henchman Krasnov (the great Brion James).

RED SCORPION is pure 1980s anti-Commie nonsense, not surprising given that it was the brainchild of a 30-year-old D.C. businessman, lobbyist, noted Young Republican, and fledgling movie producer named Jack Abramoff.   Yes, the same Jack Abramoff who was later convicted of fraud and tax evasion.  There's definitely a right-wing agenda to RED SCORPION, and it may be the only film about a Soviet military officer fighting with African rebels that's designed to have the audience still somehow chanting "USA!" when shit starts blowing up.  Abramoff's baby was a legendarily troubled shoot, as the production was kicked out of Swaziland just before filming began in 1987 and moved to Namibia and South Africa, during the anti-Apartheid boycott (another thing Cannon was frequently doing at the time).  This caused distributor Warner Bros. to back out and the indie Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment ended up releasing the film, which ultimately cost about double its original budget.  But with all that backstory and all those problems, watching the film today, it plays surprisingly well.  It's a cheesy '80s RAMBO knockoff (a monotone Rachenko to the Mombaka rebels: "Let's kick some ass") from start to finish, with tons of action, explosions, and impressive stunt work...the way it used to be done.  Synapse's Blu-ray package comes with a DVD copy of the film (both at 1.78:1, and the unrated, uncensored version), and tons of bonus features, including interviews with Lundgren, Abramoff, and special effects maestro Tom Savini, some behind-the-scenes footage, and a commentary track with Zito and Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson.  RED SCORPION is not a classic awaiting rediscovery, but fans of over-the-top '80s action will find a lot to like.  Zito's engaging, informative, and refreshingly unpretentious commentary harbors no grandiose illusions about what the movie is and he talks a lot about what went into making this kind of action fare in the 1980s ("Action films like this are pure fantasy, but as a director, you have to know where you stand with a movie like this and it's up to you to establish the tone for the audience. You're not making APOCALYPSE NOW, but you're not making HOT SHOTS, either"). (Unrated, 106 mins)

(UK - 1973)

Going back to 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, the anthology film was a staple of British horror cinema for nearly a decade.  A number of the more popular ones--like DR. TERROR, plus TORTURE GARDEN (1967) and TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), were directed by the venerable Freddie Francis.  Francis also helmed TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, which isn't one of the most stellar examples of the subgenre.  The set-up is familiar:  a doctor (Jack Hawkins in his last theatrical feature; he died before it was released) visits a psychiatrist friend (Donald Pleasence), who introduces him to four asylum inmates and tells their stories.  "Mr. Tiger" is about a young boy's imaginary friend, a tiger that might not be so imaginary.  "Penny Farthing" is about a haunted portrait of an old man that wills an antique dealer (Peter McEnery) to travel back in time on a magic penny farthing bicycle.  "Mel" has Michael Jayston as a man who finds a tree stump (with "MEL" carved into a part of the bark) in the vague shape of a woman's body.  He brings it home as a piece of art to display in the house, but it soon casts some kind of seductive spell on him and provokes intense jealousy on the part of his wife (Joan Collins).  "Luau" has literary agent Kim Novak planning a Hawaiian-themed party for a popular young author (Michael Petrovitch).  Her attempts to get her client into bed are thwarted by her flirtaceous daughter (Mary Tamm), but Petrovitch has something else far more sinister and gruesome in mind.  Of course, this all leads to a tired twist at the end.  Except for a few late-period high points like THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970) and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, anthologies of this sort were pretty much running on fumes by this point, and that's firmly exemplified by the uninspired TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS.  Written by "Jay Fairbank," a pen name for actress-turned-screenwriter Jennifer Jayne, these tales are more weird than scary, with "Mel" being the definite low point (especially its last shot).  As is normally the case with films of this sort, they save the best--relatively speaking--for last, but in this genre's prime, "Luau" would've been a first or second segment, certainly not the grand finale.  And the first three wouldn't have even made the cut.

Mel the Cockteasing Tree Stump in

At least it has an interesting cast, even if they're all clearly beneath the material.  Novak, still stunning and already in semi-retirement at just 40, was a last-minute replacement for an ill Rita Hayworth.  Other than doing a favor for her friend and PAL JOEY (1957) co-star, I can't imagine what she found interesting about this project.  Nevertheless, it does show some signs of life during "Luau" and Novak is terrific in her minimal screen time. Collins and Jayston can't do much with the silliness of "Mel," and you almost feel sorry for Jayston (NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA) when he's required to look turned on by "Mel" and somehow use all of his extensive thespian training to convince the audience that he wants to get it on with a tree stump.  Completists will probably get more out of TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS than the casual viewer, but even with its modern advances like occasional splatter and a couple bits of nudity, it's pretty C-list material at best, and Francis made much better films than this one in his long and stellar career as a director and cinematographer.  This is another Paramount title licensed to Olive Films, and their Blu-ray looks very nice and is framed at 1.78:1.  No extras, not even a trailer.  (R, 90 mins, also available on DVD)

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