Monday, March 4, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: Shout! Factory Roundup

Another batch of cult hits on Blu-ray from the unstoppable Shout! Factory!

(US - 1993)
Some outstanding car chase sequences highlight this Dolph Lundgren actioner that was shot in 1992, bypassing US theaters and retitled ARMY OF ONE when it belatedly hit video stores in late 1994.  Looking much bigger than its relatively lean budget, JOSHUA TREE benefits from having experienced stunt coordinator and veteran second unit director Vic Armstrong (whose career as a stuntman dates back to 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) making his directorial debut.  Armstrong's storytelling and directing of the non-action scenes are frequently clunky and lacking polish, but when the focus is action, which is quite often, JOSHUA TREE really works, coming off very much like a hard-R, John Woo-inspired version of the Charlie Sheen comedy THE CHASE, which came out around the same time.  Lundgren is Santee, who transports stolen cars in a big rig with his buddy Eddie (Ken Foree).  Eddie is killed and Santee is framed for the murder of a highway patrolman by corrupt L.A. cop Severence (George Segal), who runs a hot-car operation with his partner Rudy (Beau Starr).  Santee escapes custody during a prison transport, taking local deputy Rita (Kristian Alfonso) hostage and hellbent on vengeance against Severence.  Armstrong takes a while getting things revved up, but the second half of the film is basically one long car chase after an incredible shootout at a chop shop owned by Asian mobster Jimmy Shoeshine (Michael Paul Chan, perhaps best known as the Korean convenience store clerk in FALLING DOWN). 

When it was released on VHS as ARMY OF ONE, the film was apparently snipped of some of its more over-the-top violence to secure an R rating.  This Blu-ray is R-rated, but it almost has to be the uncut version.  There's gore galore, all done with practical effects as stomachs are shot open, throats are sliced, and brains splatter against walls.  Not without its structural and pacing flaws, but overall, JOSHUA TREE is a very fun B-movie gem, with Lundgren an engaging antihero (Armstrong says the character is based on Humphrey Bogart in HIGH SIERRA, which is seen on a TV set at one point), and Segal enjoyably over-the-top as the bad guy. Also with Michelle Phillips, Geoffrey Lewis, Bert Remsen, Khandi Alexander, Denver Mattson, Nick Chinlund, and the great Al Leong.  Shout's Blu-ray is 2.35:1 and the bonus features include the alternate ARMY OF ONE ending in 1.33:1 (including some extended Lundgren/Segal brawling), a commentary with Armstrong and his co-producer/second-unit director brother Andy, both of whom are featured with Lundgren in a 25-minute documentary retrospective. Either ending works nicely and doesn't make much of a difference--the Armstrongs admit that the ARMY OF ONE ending is probably more satisfying, but they prefer the original JOSHUA TREE finale.  Ideally, both versions would've been included, but with the ARMY OF ONE ending in 1.33:1, it's likely the elements didn't exist for a proper widescreen transfer. (R, 102 mins)

(US - 1988)

"They're Creeping Up on You," the E.G. Marshall vs. cockroaches segment of George A. Romero's CREEPSHOW (1982), and Guillermo del Toro's MIMIC (1997) are the standard-bearers in grossout cockroach cinema, but this enjoyably icky 1988 Roger Corman production is a close third (in fact, MIMIC borrowed one of its major plot elements from THE NEST).  The small coastal town of North Port finds itself under siege by a mutant strain of cockroach thanks to the usual scientific experimentation gone awry.  To combat the cockroach nuisance, a breed of cannibalistic cockroach was created with the intention of consuming the existing roaches.  Bred to die out after one generation, the flesh-eating cockroaches adapted and survived, developing an immunity to pesticides and an ability to mimic what they consume.  Boasting better production values than many Concorde/Corman releases of that era, multiple visits to Corman's beloved Bronson Canyon, memorable gore scenes, and headed by a veteran actor (aging TV star Robert Lansing as the mayor) who seems to be taking the project seriously, THE NEST still plays very nicely today.  The film also benefits from solid supporting turns by Stephen Davies (best known as the American mob lawyer deemed a "long streak of paralyzed piss" by British gangster Bob Hoskins in THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY) as the requisite eccentric, comic-relief exterminator and Corman regular Terri Treas as the human villain, a man-hating mad scientist responsible for the cockroach mutation and who seems perversely turned-on by the mayhem she's created.  THE NEST marked the directing debut of THE HOWLING co-writer Terence H. Winkless, who continued working for Corman for a number of years, most notably helming one of Concorde's biggest successes, 1989's Don "The Dragon" Wilson kickboxing classic BLOODFIST.  Winkless contributes an engaging commentary track that covers pretty much anything you want to know about THE NEST (even pointing out various bits of footage recycled from other Corman productions) and working for the Corman factory.  THE NEST is entertaining B-movie trash at its finest, and certainly in the upper echelon of Corman's extremely prolific late '80s Concorde output.  (R, 88 mins)

(US - 1988)

Made in the waning days of the beloved, short-lived Empire Pictures, PRISON didn't get much of a theatrical release but did get enough coverage in Fangoria that it became an instant cult hit on video.  It was also an early directing effort for one Renny Harlin, who helmed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER later the same year and was in the majors by 1990 with THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE and DIE HARD 2 opening on consecutive weekends.   Over the years, Harlin earned a rep as a bit of a Hollywood uber-hack, but PRISON is the work of a young and ambitious filmmaker and in retrospect, is probably one of his best films.  It holds up remarkably well, thanks in large part to some unusually strong performances for a low-budget, late '80s horror flick.  The late, great character actor Hall of Famer Lane Smith has one of his rare lead roles and absolutely runs with it in a terrific performance as the edgy, paranoid warden in a decrepit prison that's haunted by the ghost of a vengeful convict wrongly executed 20 years earlier when Smith was a guard.  The prison's been closed since that execution, but state budget cuts have forced its reopening as an alternative to building a state-of-the-art facility.  Of course, it doesn't take long for the evil to be unleashed as Smith, his guards, and the convicts (including a mysterious Viggo Mortensen in an early role) are all fair game for supernatural vengeance.  Harlin and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner let the film unfold at a (perhaps too) leisurely pace (it could probably lose about 15 minutes), but it does effectively establish an ominous and atmospheric mood and once it gets rolling around the midway point, it doesn't let up.  Convincing special effects and a solid cast of recognizable character actors from movies and TV (Chelsea Field, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Arlen Dean Snyder, Hal Landon, Jr., and Tiny Lister among others) add to the quality of this very well-done chiller that was one of several entries in a strange 1988-89 prison and/or vengeful-prisoner-back-from-the-dead horror craze (along with DESTROYERSLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCKTHE CHAIR, THE HORROR SHOW, and Wes Craven's SHOCKER).  Shout's Blu-ray/DVD combo pack presents the film in 1.78:1 and features a 40-minute retrospective documentary and a commentary with Harlin.  RE-ANIMATOR and TRANCERS may get all the glory, but PRISON also ranks as one of the very best films that Empire made before they folded and Charles Band parlayed that notoriety into '90s video store and horror merch staple Full Moon. (R, 103 mins)


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