Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the holiday movie season was a quick breeze with little to no new releases to celebrate the most festive time of the year. One notable release was definitely not for children. The dark comedy flick Fatman stars Mel Gibson as a frazzled Santa Claus who is fighting to save his business of making toys and delivering them to children all over the world. Unbeknownst to him, a neglected and spoiled rich twelve-year old boy hires a hit man (played by Walton Goggins) to kill Santa after receiving a lump of coal for Christmas. Fatman was originally slated to release in theaters but ended up being released on numerous streaming platforms including Amazon Prime and On Demand. The movie received mixed reviews with many people describing the film as a wintery spaghetti western with solid performances from Gibson and Goggins.
For fans of the film or if you missed out during its initial release you can now see Gibson’s take on a cranky, crusty and not so jolly Saint Nick with the Blu-Ray release of Fatman. Not only do you get the Blu-Ray of the movie, but it comes with a Digital Code that you can send to your friends so they can watch it on a home device. In addition, the Blu-Ray features several extras including Deleted and Extended Scenes, Storyboards to Film and an Audio Commentary featuring the writing/directing Nelms brothers, Eshon and Ian, Producer Michelle Lang, Director of Photography Johnny Derango and of course the star of the film, Mel Gibson.
I’m not going to go deep into a review of the movie itself to avoid spoilers. This review involves the overall look and presentation of the Blu-Ray release. Right away I noticed how clean and the picture looked on my television. Your eyes will be treated to the beautiful settings where Fatman takes place. The majority of the movie was shot in Ottawa and the farm that is used as Santa’s base is a real farm where it has been owned through twelve generations of Canadians. The Nelms Brothers make great use of natural lighting to give that wintry look and feel. Every shot in the movie is crisp and the performances add to the emotion that is in the scene. The production team did an amazing job of creating a cold gritty world where the magical season of Christmas is losing its luster. You’ll get excited with every scene involving Gibson and Goggings as they give opposing performances but organically weave in the comedy to not make it too dark and depressing. The story itself is original and innovative as this is a take on Chris Cringle no storyteller would dare to write.
The sound of Fatman is mastered in Dolby Audio. If you have a great surround system or soundbar you’ll be hearing every little detail that is in the movie. You’ll hear the diverse soundtrack that won’t drive you crazy with endless Christmas tunes. You can even hear the breath coming from Walton Goggins during one scene in the film. The sound of the gunshots during the climactic battle scene are sharp and make you feel like you need to duck and cover behind your couch. Kudos to the sound designers for creating the right pitch and tone to add another layer of the film.
While the extras are skim, I’m always excited to read that there is an Audio Commentary for the home release of a film. When you watch Fatman with the Audio Commentary turned on you will hear right away that the participants are recording using Zoom or another online chat site (due to COVID restrictions). I enjoyed listening to Eshom and Ian Nelm’s approach to telling this story and all the decisions that were made from lighting to setting and casting. I’m not familiar with any of their previous work, but this film was a solid first impression for me. It’s great to hear Mel Gibson talk about his approach to Santa and how much fun he had working on this movie. He cracks jokes and at times bummed out when certain lines or scenes were taken out because they were too cheesy. The commentaries are insightful and informative. There was no pause to take a drink of water or catch a breath with this crew. The Storyboard extras will appeal to those who have an interest in how a movie is presented and how the shots will be scheduled. As for the Deleted and Extra Scenes they don’t offer anything that enhanced the movie, but rather gave you an extended look at a scene. These cuts were appropriate given the quick pacing of the movie.
Overall, the Fatman Blu-Ray edition is a nice present give to yourself or to a friend or family member who may enjoy this unique take of a dark comedy holiday film. It’s reasonably priced and has just enough to keep your entertainment level fat and jolly.
Starring: John Blyth Barrymore, Buddy Daniels Friedman, Beverly Washburn, Ann Robinson, Jim Tavare, Len Wein, T.J. Storm, Mel Novak
Warning: Possible Spoilers In This Review
Hello, readers! Once again it’s time for another special edition of “Guilty Pleasure Cinema!” This past Labor Day weekend I had the opportunity to watch the latest release from author/writer/filmmaker Donald F. Glut. For those who may not have heard of the name Donald F. Glut before, let me give you a short biography on his career. Glut started his filmmaking career in 1953 making short unauthorized adaptations of characters such as Superman, Spider-Man and Dracula to name a few. He gained notoriety in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which was a genre-specific film magazine that was started by publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman in 1958. From there he went on to become a screenwriter, mostly writing for children’s television shows and cartoons from G.I. Joe to Land of the Lost, pretty much any 80s cartoon show you could think of, he wrote for. Glut is most notable for being an author as he has written around sixty five novels that have been published. His biggest work was writing the novel adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back (coincidentally, he and George Lucas were classmates at the University of Southern California). Today, Donald F. Glut continues to make movies based on his own writings. His latest release is an anthology tribute to Mary Shelly’s iconic novel Frankenstein entitled Tales of Frankenstein.
Tales of Frankenstein consists of four short stories based upon Donald F. Glut’s book of the same name. Each story takes place in a different time period and they revolve around descendants of the notorious doctor whom created a monster that is a legendary staple in the genre of horror. The introduction of the film shows Frankenstein’s monster roaming the outside only to discover a portrait of its creator. From there the portrait appears in each tale going in chronological order of the time piece. At the end of each story, the Frankenstein monster appears in the wraparound segments to transition to the next story and so on.
The first story presented in the film is titled “My Creation, My Beloved,” takes place in 1887 Bavaria, which stars Buddy Daniels Friedman as Dr. Gregore Frankenstein, a descendant of Victor. Furious over his family’s legacy over Victor’s original creation, Gregore hopes to restore the family name by successfully creating a male and female creation. This is a strong introductory story to the film as it pays homage to not only the original Frankenstein story but to the visual adaptations made by the legendary Hammer Films series. The performances are solid with Friedman able to carry the weight of the story as he is determined to succeed where his family tree had failed. His performance is filled with manic moments as well as some quirky moments. There are some nice visuals and the setting gives an authentic look and feel of 1887 Bavaria. The story has a nice twist ending that rivals those seen in the Tales From The Crypt television series.
The second story deviates from the Frankenstein story, but instead takes place in the Frankenstein universe. Taking place in Switzerland in 1910, “Crawler From The Grave” is a tale which involves Lenore Frankenstein (Tatiana DeKhtyar) who is grieving over the passing over her husband, Helmut Frankenstein (Len Wein in his final film roll). From there, Lenore receives a call from Helmut’s nemesis named Vincent (John Blyth Barrymore) asking about a ring that was buried with him wearing it. The rival sets out to acquire the ring from the grave of the deceased husband only to be followed by something that is not quite human which seems to be seeking the ring as well. Features a supporting cast including Beverly Washburn and Ann Robinson, “Crawler From The Grave” focuses on flashbacks to show the relationship between Vincent and Helmut and from there deals with Vincent acquiring the ring and the curse that comes with it. This story is dialogue heavy with Barrymore taking the mantle of screen time with not much in the way of scares until the very end. Len Wein also delivers a sobering performance in his final film role as Helmut Frankenstein which is a great send off to his incredible career. It’s a lengthy segment that could’ve been balanced out by trimming some of the backstory and including more of the aftermath of Vincent acquiring the ring. The effects at the climax of the story are decent and the music provides the dread that is about to come in the end.
The film-noir flavored “Madhouse of Death” is the third tale in this anthology which takes places in 1948 Los Angeles. The story follows private investigator Jack Anvill (Jamisin Matthews) whose Jalopy breaks down on a country road. From there he walks to the nearest house hoping to get access to a phone. He is greeted at the door by Mogambo (T.J. Storm) who instructs him to stay where he’s at while he asks permission from the homeowner. The owner is Dr. Mortality (Mel Novak) whom is experimenting with inserting a human brain into an ape. To make Jack comfortable he is attended to by three beautiful Chinese women who ensures that his focus is on them and not what Dr. Mortality is about to do to him. While it was great seeing Mel Novak in another villanous role as the determined Dr. Mortality, “Madhouse of Death” is the weakest story in this anthology. I understand Glut wanting to mix film noir with classic horror, which he does accomplish visually, it overall suffers from the tone of the story. I know this is supposed to be the comedic relief of the film, but the humor was amiss. In addition, the performance of the lead actor Matthews is flat as his narration sounds like he’s reading directly from the script which gives his character a boring tone. The portrayal of Jack Anvill doesn’t come off as likeable, but rather annoying. I honestly was hoping for a clever demise.
For the finale of Tales From Frankenstein, we get a reinterpretation of the Frankenstein story taking place in 1957 Transylvania. In “Dr. Karstein’s Creation,” Jim Tavare stars as the titular character as he moves into an abandoned castle in Transylvania in the hopes of creating a new life using various body parts of deceased human beings in order to duplicate the success Victor Frankenstein had with his monster. Karstein recruits teenage local Carl (Justin Hoffmeister) to be his assistant. From there they collect the parts they need to assemble their creature. This is my favorite story in Tales of Frankenstein as it gives a fresh take on the tale while paying homage to Mary Shelly. Tavare is great as the cunning and determined Dr. Karstein while Hoffmeister plays the somewhat oblivious Carl who thinks he’ll be riding on Karstein’s success only for him to learn a very hard lesson in the end. The story is filled with beautiful imagery, franctic action, just the right amount of blood and gore and plenty of humor. “Dr. Karstein’s Creation” is the perfect closer to the anthology.
Overall, Tales From Frankenstein is an acceptable anthology series that pays tribute to the classic monster. This movie is strictly for those horror fans who love the early era of stories and cinema. Those who aren’t keen with Frankenstein will likely pass on this. Despite the off balanced pacing, there is enough here to enjoy from the performances to the vintage settings and the reimagined tales. Donald F. Glut brings to life his novel in his own cinematic adaptation and you have to appreciate him for doing just that. Its what sets apart auteurs from the rest of the artists.
Starring: Damien Chinappi, Richard Tyson, Scout Taylor-Compton, Billy Wirth, Erika Hoveland, Yan Birch, Mel Novak, Vida Ghaffari
Warning: Possible Spoilers In This Review
As I’ve previously mentioned in my review for Attack of the Unknown, there are times here on “Guilty Pleasure Cinema” where I receive an opportunity to watch a film sent to me directly from the distributors or producers. This review is going to be another special review since it falls a little outside the normal reviews I’ve put on here. There won’t be any audio clips or trivia. Instead it’s going to be a straight up review as to why I recommend you check out this particular film. With that being said, I had the pleasure this past weekend of watching a unique film that was written and directed by Harley Wallen, whom has appeared in over forty feature length films and TV shows. His filmography includes Agramon’s Gate which stars B Movie icon Laurene Landon, Betrayed starring John Savage and Abstruse starring Tom Sizemore. I’ll be reviewing his latest release, Eternal Code.
Eternal Code follows the story of Corey (Damien Chinappi), an Iraq War Veteran who is in an unfortunate position like many veterans as he is homeless and unable to find work, not to mention having suicidal thoughts. Sitting on a park bench, he befriends a prostitute named Stephanie (Kaiti Wallen) along with two teenage girls who bring him food and money, Miranda (Angelina Danielle Cama) and May (Calhoun Koenig). Miranda’s mother is Bridget Pellegrini (Erika Hoveland), who is the head of a biological company that is developing technology which could bring eternal life to human beings. She is fighting against a merger that is being led by Oliver (Richard Tyson). To make sure the merger goes through, Oliver assembles a team to kidnap Bridget and her husband Mark (Billy Wirth) and hold them hostage while intimidating the other members of the board to vote yes for the merger. Miranda manages to not be taken and enlists Corey’s help to rescue her parents. Using his combat training and skills, Corey seeks out to find Miranda’s parents as well as protecting her from being kidnapped.
Clocking in at a runtime of 105 minutes, Eternal Code is a dramatic thriller with science fiction elements. The film deals with the concept of life, death and afterlife. While the concept of life after death remains a mystery to humans, science is hoping to solve the mystery. It also deals with the morals and ethics of this research. You have Bridget who is wanting to use this breakthrough for peaceful purposes while Oliver is wanting this for his own personal ambitions, which you will uncover as you watch the film. He’s not going to let anyone nor anything stop in his way even if it means using retaliatory measures which we find so often in our business world today.
The performances are strong in this film especially from the main leads. Chinappi plays Corey as a lost soul in the beginning, but it would take the decency and good heart of Miranda for him to snap back into a sense of purpose as he is determined to pay his debt to her by rescuing her parents. Chinappi’s performance reminds me of a mix between Jack Bauer and Bryan Mills (24 and Taken for those who aren’t getting the reference). He doesn’t rely on torturing his suspects to extract information. Instead he uses stealth, cunning and the old fashioned gun pointed at the head to get what he needs to move forward. Richard Tyson is in a familiar antagonist role as he has been known for playing villains for most of his career, most notably in Kindergarten Cop. His character of Oliver is cold, calculating and is done reasoning with others. The rest of the supporting casts play their parts appropriately and each bring something to the story. There’s two special appearances in the movie. The first is from Scout Taylor-Compton (Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween II) as Charlie, who is in charge of watching over Bridget and Mark and gets easily annoyed by their constant complaining and her frustration shows during her screen time. The other is Mel Novak (Game of Death, An Eye For An Eye) who plays board member Pomeroy. His appearance is a mix between Cliff Robertson and a certain United States President whom shall remain nameless. Novak is known in the film industry for playing villains, but it was a breath of fresh air to see him play a different role as one of the more reasonable executives and would not be beaten into submission even if it meant losing his life.
You’ll need to be patient when watching this movie as the pacing starts out very slow, but then picks up around the thirty minute mark. From there you have many moments on screen that will make you tense.For those of you who are expecting long shoot em up scenes or explosions, there’s none of that in Eternal Code. There are fight scenes and dead bodies, but it’s minimal. Instead, Wallen’s direction makes you use your brain and think about what would you do in the situation that they find themselves in. The presentation fits with a real life situation if your loved ones were kidnapped, what would you do? How far involved would you be to get them back? The only gripes I had other than the uneven pacing was I felt some scenes could’ve been trimmed down as they would dwell on matters that have already been established.
Eternal Code is a pleasant flick that is a nice breather from all the blockbuster action films that need car chases, things blowing up and a high body count to keep the audience’s attention. It’s not going to fit everyone’s tastes, but if you’re looking for something that is a little more clever and dramatic, then this is worth a viewing.
As we reach the end of summer and heading into fall, there’s much to be excited about when it comes to new home video releases. Shout Factory and its horror counterpart Scream Factory has released some cult classics for the first time on Blu Ray this past summer including one of my favorite “Guilty Pleasure” films Graveyard Shift (See the Archives for previous review) and they’ve made huge headlines last month with not only the announcement of new Steelbook Editions of Pumpkinhead and Motel Hell, but they announced the Friday the 13th Collection Deluxe Edition which features all twelve films on sixteen discs complete with never before seen cuts and a ton of extras. There was another movie I was eagerly anticipating for its release which I received in the mail this past Monday and is scheduled to be released this upcoming Tuesday, August 25th. I’m talking of course about the Collector’s Edition of the 1990 Anthology Horror film, Tales From The Darkside: TheMovie.
Tales From The Darkside was a television series created by horror legend George Romero which debut in 1983. The show which was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone spanned numerous genres besides horror including science fiction. fantasy and black comedy. The show was a huge success that they spun a movie which was released to theaters on May 4, 1990. The film featured three stories along with a wrap around segment that is considered a fourth story. It was a modest success at the box office and was known for not only for displaying its blend of different genres and originality, but it was also known for being early film roles for then unknown actors Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore, among others. I’m not going to do a breakdown of the film itself, but what I would say is that Tales From The Darkside: The Movie ranks up there in terms of best horror anthology films. My review will be focused on the new Collector’s Edition Blu Ray and its overall presentation.
The Collector’s Edition of Tales From The Darkside: The Movie comes in a sleeve cover with reversible artwork for the Blu Ray sleeve itself. I love how Scream Factory utilizes the covers as you can have the new original artwork exclusive for the release as your hard cover and then you can change the Blu-Ray sleeve to include the original theatrical poster. You can pay homage to the original art while celebrating the new work. The film itself has been transferred in 1080p so those of you who were hoping for a 2k/4k scan of the original negative will be disappointed. Despite that, the film quality is crisp and clean. The lighting and colors are what really stands out in this presentation. You have the warm amber colors of the first story “Lot 249” which gives it a classic horror feel considering the story was taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the same name. You have the blue cold colors shown in “Cat From Hell,” which gives the story a deathly atmosphere and you have the smoky gritty look of the third story “Lover’s Vow,” which gives that story a feeling of mystery. Every frame comes alive and you’ll be taken aback by how slick the transition was. There are two options for sound which are DTS Master Audio 5.1 or 2.0 depending on what kind of system you have. I ran the 5.1 sound and I could hear the music, screams and other sounds as clear as crystal. Don’t think you’ll go wrong with either sound choice.
The Collector’s Edition is loaded with extras. In addition to the Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots, Radio Spots and Behind The Scenes Galleries and Footage, there are two Audio Commentary tracks for you to choose from when watching the film. The first Audio Commentary is with Co-Producer David R. Kappes, which is new to this release. The second Audio Commentary which features director John Harrison and Co-Screenwriter George Romero is taken from previous home releases. The commentary from Kappes gives his behind the scenes role of developing the film, what went into the decision making process and his observation of the film as he watches it. The Audio Commentary with Harrison and Romero is a nice gesture to include in this Collector’s Edition. While Romero is no longer with us, it’s still sobering to hear his voice as he talks about his role in the film, which was writing “Cat From Hell” alongside his good friend, Stephen King.
The highlight of this Collector’s Edition besides the film itself is the brand new documentary, Tales Behind The Darkside: The Making Of Four Ghoulish Fables. This retrospective of the film spawns six chapters divided up appropriately. The first two chapters go into the history of the Tales From The Darkside television series to the development of the movie and the choices that were made. I loved the fact that the entire crew was taken straight from the television series. They kept it all in the family which gave the film familiarity. From there the next chapters were devoted to each story presented in the movie. You get some wonderful insights into not only the decisions to use which stories for the movie, but also some great commentary from the behind the scenes crew as to how the lighting was created, what sets were hand made and what sets were borrowed and of course how the monsters and special effects were made, which were created once again by Greg Nicotero and his crew. During the chapter of the documentary which talked about the third story presented, which was “Lover’s Vow,” we get an appearance from the stars of that story, Rae Dawn Chong and James Remar, which was a huge surprise considering the only actor shown in the documentary up to that point was Michael Daek who played dual roles as the Mummy in “Lot 249” and the Gargoyle in “Lover’s Vow.” Chong and Remar say nothing but positive things about their experiences on set and the chemistry that was developed between them. For James Remar, he said making this film was the start of the second phase of his career as he was newly sober at the time he started shooting. I couldn’t watch the documentary in a full sitting. It took me two nights to get through it which tells you the running time. This documentary is one of the best exclusive documentaries to come out from Scream Factory and everyone who worked on this should be given a huge round of applause.
Overall, the Collector’s Edition of Tales From The Darkside: The Movie is another home run release for Scream Factory. For its reasonable price you get a high quality horror film loaded with extras. This release will tie you over until the fall when they unleash to the horror consumer a plethora of titles in various box sets and steelbooks. You can still pre-order Tales From The Darkside: The Movie before it is released Tuesday, but it won’t make much difference at this point in terms of receiving it early. Nevertheless grab this release as it is a great film to add to your Shout/Scream Factory collection.
While major Hollywood studios have closed their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not stopped independent film companies from taking advantage of the situation by releasing their movies. One of those companies that is showing no signs of taking a break is Mahal Empire Productions. Mahal has become one of the leading companies for independent movies. Besides the quality and originality of their pictures, they’ve seized upon the concept of using campaign sites such as Indiegogo to ask fans for money to finance their films in exchange for perks. Mahal has exceeded their fundraising goals for each movie campaign and within a matter of days. They clearly know their market and have done it the right way as well as paving the way for those who want to get into the film industry. Now the company will be releasing their biggest release of the summer with Attack of the Unknown.
Directed by Brandon Slagle who in addition co-wrote the script with producers Michael and Sonny Mahal, Attack of the Unknown starts off as an action thriller as an LAPD SWAT team raids on a meeting orchestrated by notorious drug cartel leader Miguel ‘Hades’ Aguirre (Robert LaSardo). After a blazing gunfight, the Feds swarm in and take over the operation much to the disappointment of the team. From there, the story focuses on SWAT leader Vernon (Richard Grieco) whose life is starting to crumble. Besides going through a divorce, he is told by his doctor that he has cancer which has him caught in a miserable vice. Meanwhile in another part of Los Angeles, two police officers with a drunk driving suspect in the back of their vehicle come across what looks like a damaged spaceship in the desert. The ship explodes as the officers reach it only for them and their suspect to be killed by a strange tentacle that jabs them once. From there, a giant spaceship hovers over the city and an alien invasion begins. Vernon and his crew get caught up in it as they are transferring Hades to jail only to have them and their crew work together to figure out what these aliens want and how to defeat them.
Attack of the Unknown takes the ingredients of various science fiction eras, most notably the 50s and the 90s, adds modern day action followed by some solid digital effects, polished cinematography and finishes it with some high quality sound, puts it in a film can and through the projector releases a movie that is all killer and no filler. It’s a film that has some serious tones, but in the end is a homage to the cheeses B movies of past and present. Considering the content, Attack of the Unknown works as a film that is perfect for a Drive In viewing since they’re riding the storm while theaters are hunkered down.
The highlighted performances in this movie are its two leads. First is Richard Grieco whose portrayal of Vernon reminded me of Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4 where he is on a death clock and musters the last of his strength for one final mission. In this case, Vernon’s final mission is to save the planet from its unwanted visitors. Grieco plays it with grit and is in no mood for games. Then there’s Hades played by Robert LaSardo, who has been a character actor for more than thirty years and I remember him from his appearances in such film and television most notably in Hard to Kill and Out For Justice with Steven Seagal, playing different criminals in NYPD Blue and more recently in Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. It was great to see LaSardo play a significant role in this as he plays Hades as an arrogant gangster who tries to get underneath the skin of Vernon and the other SWAT teams with his smug and cocky insults to stir up who he is antagonizing in order to get a violent reaction out of them. The rest of the cast offers their own unique traits and abilities including a survivor who runs a podcast and says he can kick some alien ass due to his nonstop playing of Street Fighter. There’s even a cameo from Tara Reid, another frequent Mahal contributor although she is delegated to a flashback.
Another positive about Attack of the Unknown is that it a fast paced film that doesn’t boggle down on tedious scenes that don’t progress the story forward. The initial raid scene in the beginning is fourteen minutes long, but doesn’t feel that way as your eyes are engaged at all the bullets flying and bodies piling up. It makes you feel like you’re playing a video game. From there the invasion starts to happen and the survivors are strategizing as to how they are going to make it out of the situation alive. The film clocks in at 103 minutes which is an appropriate length for a film of this concept.
The design of the giant spaceship borrows from the major ships in Independence Day and even move in a similar fashion. As soon as they arrive on earth, they don’t waste time and start blowing up buildings in downtown Los Angeles and causing a chain reaction where citizens are running for their lives. The design of the alien creatures are picked and pulled from infamous creations. their bodies resemble those of the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation while their claws seem to be taken from Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters and the helmets they used are lifted from Ridley Scott’s Alien. While the creatures look dated they are not to be taken lightly as they pack a wallop with their quick kill abilities. Kudos to the makeup and costume department for creating antagonists that pay homage to their sci-fi ancestry.
With a lackluster release this movie year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Attack of the Unknown is just the film that you need to watch to escape the real horrors going on in the world. The film will be released on Video on Demand on Blu-Ray August 28th with a DVD/Blu-Ray release to come in October. Be sure to mark that date on your calendar since it will be the first big release of what is shaping to be a fall finale for new movies to be released on home platforms instead of the traditional theatrical release.
Starring: Ethan Embry, Cassidy Rae, John DeLancie, Cindy Pickett, Paul Dooley William H. Macy (Credited as W.H. Macy)
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
The 90s saw the boom of video rentals. Chains like Blockbuster had not only the hottest theatrical releases, but movies that went straight to video. Low budget B-movies used the rental boom as a way to get their films out to the viewing public. Companies like Full Moon Features profited and flourished using this concept. Some of the straight to video films began to appear on designated channels. The Sci-Fi channel was known for not only playing classic science fiction and horror films, but they played straight to video exclusives and started making their own movies that would be played specifically on their channel (a trend that has continued today). One of the first titles to come out during this period was the movie Evolver.
The movie is about a teenage gamer and hacker Kyle Baxter (played by Ethan Embry) who is an avid gamer trying to get the high school on an arcade game called Evolver. Evolver is a virtual reality game where the player must track down and shoot a fast moving robot. The company that created the game, Cyber-Tronix is having a contest where they person with the highest score will win a prototype home version of the game which includes a physical robot of Evolver itself. Kyle being a few points short of first hacks into the Cyber-Tronix network and fixes the score so he would be first. He wins the contest and the robot is delivered to his home complete with a big marketing promotion form the company which features the CEO of the company Jerry Briggs (played by Paul Doocey) and the creator of Evolver Russell Bennet (played by John DeLancie). Kyle and his friends start to play with the new robot and seem to have fun. Later as the game continues, Kyle starts to notice some strange things going on with Evolver. He hacks into the program and finds that the game’s source code is run on a program called ‘SWORD’. Later while addressing his concerns with Bennett at Cyber-Tronix’s headquarters, he sneaks into one of the computer rooms and discovers that SWORD was originally a military program designed by Bennett and was inputted into robots used in war. The project went haywire when the prototype robot began killing its teammates, forcing Bennett to shut down the program. When confronted by this information Bennett admitted that he was trying to prove that his programmed worked, but lapsed in judgment by not adapting the program enough for home consumption. Now Kyle must find a way to defeat Evolver as its primary objective now is to terminate him.
The movie was released in 1995. I remember seeing previews for this film on the Sci-Fi channel and thinking this looked cool since it was a movie about a video game robot. When I saw the film for the first time, I was thoroughly impressed. It was one of the better robot movies that I had seen in my short time (I was ten years old in 1995). I watched it again not too long ago and I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. It’s a rare breed of films that were played on the Sci-Fi Channel that I liked.
The opening scene is Kyle playing the Evolver VR game. The VR graphics are similar to the ones that were in The Lawnmower Man (if any of you have seen that). There are some nice first person scenes inside the game that make you feel like you are playing the game (I wish they came out with an Evolver VR game. Now is the opportunity with all the headsets out there). There are a lot of first person shots involving Evolver. There are scenes where you are seeing through the lens of Evolver’s visor and you can see all the programming and targeting that it has. When Evolver moves, you’ll notice the camera is hovered low to reflect Evolver’s height. I thought that was clever. The film has more physical special effects than visual. Most of Evolver’s kills deal with using physical tools and the environment that surrounds him. The only visual effects I found were when he uses electricity and laser weapons, which is fine. Evolver can be predictable on numerous occasions throughout the film, but It’s still a fun little joyride with some intense moments.
This movie had a nice cast of familiar faces. All of them were well suited to their roles. There were a few characters that I felt were fillers for the story. Of course, the film had to have a romantic interest, hence the character of Jane portrayed by Cassidy Rae. At first she becomes a nuisance to Kyle, but finds an immediate attraction to him and early on tries to convince him that Evolver is not what it seems. The one character I didn’t like was Kyle’s best fried Zack. I can’t remember the actor’s name that played him. At first I thought it was Adam Richman from Man vs. Food because he looks like him. Sadly it wasn’t. Anyway, Zack is a self-centered perv who only uses Kyle to get what’s best for him. In the beginning of the film, he is placing bets on Kyle to beat the Evolver’s game. When Kyle wins the Evolver robot, he wants Kyle to put it in the girl’s locker room so it could record the girls inside. I did not feel any sympathy for what happens to him in this movie.
Amway, let’s focus on the three central characters of this film.
This was one of Ethan Embry’s first teenage roles (he’s been a child actor long before this). He was well suited for the role of Kyle. Like most boys his age during this time period, video games were a way of life and a way of escaping from real world issues. Early in the film, he is very dismissive of his mother due to the fact she is always going out on dates and having to watch his kid sister. You have a sense that he blames her for what happened with the family. It’s only until a scene involving his sister in danger when Evolver is trying to kill her does he show heart and how his selfishness nearly cost him the life of his sibling. He comes to the realization that his family is more important than a piece of rolling metal. In the final confrontation, Kyle shows grave concern for his family when Evolver gives him an ultimatum. In the end, Kyle realized that in order to beat Evolver, he had to think outside of the virtual world and use the real world to his advantage.
The second central character in the film is Russell Bennet. I love John DeLancie and he was perfect for this role. Star Trek fans are well aware of who DeLancie is in their universe as the adversarial character Q from The Next Generation series. For those who aren’t Trekkies, DeLancie is also known for playing the character Donald Margolis in Breaking Bad from Season 2 going into the beginning of Season 3. Bennett is obsessed with making his program work. While the CEO of Cyber-Tronix assigns Bennett to create a holiday techno toy, Bennett is only focusing on his scrapped military program and proving the powers that be that there is nothing wrong with his program. When his boss seems concerned regarding the early data from Evolver and feels that it is not ready for public consumption, Bennett dismisses his notion and comes up with answers as to why Evolver is reacting the way that it is. When Kyle confronts him about the concerns he has with Evolver, he ignores the warnings and fights back at Kyle saying, “I created Evolver. I know what makes him tick and you don’t!” It’s like he is in complete denial. It’s only until the turning point in the film does Bennett understand the real dangers and admits defeat. Unfortunately it will be too late for him to stop it.
Finally, there is the titular character. Evolver is voiced by William H. Macy (credited as W.H. Macy). Now I’m sure you’re asking why a big name respected actor like William H. Macy is voicing a robot in a straight to video film. William H. Macy was not well known during this time period. ‘Fargo’ wasn’t released until a year after this. I’m he took whatever came to him as most actors do. Evolver’s primary objective is to win. In the VR game, no one has defeated Evolver at Level 4 and that carries over into the home game. Like its namesake, Evolver evolves at every level and he adapts to his surroundings and what he observes. Evolver’s lines are basic in the beginning, but as it confronts new players it mimics their taunts, threats and jokes. Macy does a great job keeping these lines monotone to the robot’s voice, but does it in a way that is humoring. Near the end of the movie, Evolver’s voice becomes more evil and desperate with his enemies still being alive and Macy’s voice easily transitions to that.
This movie came out at the height of the Arcade industry. Virtual reality was still a technology being played around with but it wasn’t available for entertainment consumption. Being a long time video gamer, I loved the concept of having your own interactive gaming robot you could play with. Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on their own Evolver robot to play with? This is another in a long line of films dealing with artificial intelligence and the dangers that are associated with it. You saw a lot of these movies come out shortly after ‘The Terminator’. Evolver takes it to a different level by being a portable video game robot. What is programmed to be a kid’s game becomes a killing machine. With technology continuing and artificial intelligence widening, it only takes one glitch or one error for things to go critical.
Overall, Evolver is still a fun movie. If I had to make a list of my favorite straight to video movies, this would be on my Top 2e list. Like I said earlier, I would love to start a campaign to get an Evolver VR game going. We should take up the social media platforms and let VR companies know we want this to happen and send them a copy of the movie. If by some miracle this indeed happened, it would move the Evolver movie from a simple made for television film into virual reality immortality!
While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down movie theaters it hasn’t stopped Video on Demand nor home video companies from pumping out new releases. This past week Scream Factory announced several new releases coming in time for Halloween including a brand new deluxe edition of the “Friday the 13th” film series. That announcement alone caused their servers to slow down due to everyone attempting to pre-order it. Meanwhile, they have several titles releasing in a matter of weeks. One of those titles is the 1990 Stephen King film adaption of his short story Graveyard Shift.
For the first time ever Graveyard Shift gets the Blu-Ray treatment. In addition to film there are several extras including interviews with Producer/Director Ralph S. Singleton and actors Kelly Wolf, Stephen Macht, Vic Polizos and Robert Alan Beuth along with the theatrical trailer and radio spots.I pre-ordered the film when it was announced and was lucky to receive it by mail before the initial street date. After my initial viewing, I wanted to give you the reader my take on the release. To save you some time, I will not be reviewing the film itself (My full review of Graveyard Shift is posted to this site).
Graveyard Shift is a film that is in my Top 10 Guiltiest Pleasure Movies of All Time and it was great to see that it was receiving an updated treatment. The film is not presented in a 2K or 4K scan so if you were hoping to see it in those formats you are going to be disappointed. Despite that setback, the film still looks good in 1080p. Every shot in the movie is a clean update so you won’t see patches of scenes that didn’t get treated. There is a great balance of light and dark to its brooding atmosphere in the movie and you may notice some things you didn’t notice from previous viewings. There are two audio options to the film depending on your preferences one in the DTS Master Audio 5.1 or 2.0. I switched back and forth between the two audios to hear the difference especially since I viewed this in my bedroom television. Both of them sound sharp. You can hear every line uttered from each character with the exception of Brad Dourif when he introduces himself to Hall. He talks like Boohauer that I still can’t understand what he was saying. The others sounds cut like glass as every machine sound, rat noise, and human screams sound authentic.
As for the extras of this release, I was very disappointed that there were no Audio Commentary tracks. I love listening to the Audio Commentaries to listen to the stories of the making of the film, how certain scenes were shot, why they chose the cast, etc. I don’t understand why the decision was made not to have Audio Commentary especially not with the Director not the cast that was interviewed. Guess they couldn’t get a schedule to have them appear and watch the film while they talked. While there may be no Audio Commentary there are plenty of bonus interviews in this release. First, there is a two part interview with Producer/Director Ralph S. Singleton where he talks about his career and how he got involved in this film. Singleton provides some great insights on the making of this film especially his casting choices, the number of rats they had on set and how they were trained and shipped and some of the difficulties they faced during shooting, most notably how the giant bat/rat creature would not function properly and they had to improvise in the same manner as the mechanical shark in Jaws. I was also disappointed that there were no deleted scenes nor TV scenes included especially since it is mentioned in a few of the interviews that they shot more scenes including more of the relationship developing between lead characters Hall and Wisconsky. The interviews with Kelly Wolf, Vic Polizos and Robert Alan Beuth are all around an average of twelve minutes. Each actor talks about how they got into acting, how they got their roles and their experiences on set. All of them were in agreement that they loved shooting on location in Bangor, Maine. It was great that Scream Factory was able to secure interviews with them considering I haven’t seen much of them in any other shows or films with the exception of Polizos who has appeared in many notable films like Harlem Nights and Night of the Creeps.
For me, the best interview extra was with Stephen Macht who played the sleazy cheap antagonist Warwick. Macht, who not only is an incredible actor with many credits to his resume, but he is also an Acting Teacher and Associate Professor who earned a Ph.D. in Dramatic Literature from Indiana University. In his academia train of thought Macht psychoanalyzes the film from different aspects for the viewer. He talked about how his first acting roles were in morality plays and explains how Graveyard Shift is a morality play and further goes into his reasoning providing many examples. I was blown away by what Macht was saying and I could see right there how the film can be interpreted as a morality play. I also loved how Macht described how he got a dialect coach from Maine to help with his accent. He admits that he was told to play it a little over the top, but he sure did enjoy the challenge given that it’s a movie where the story was based in Maine and shot in Maine and wanted to keep it as authentic as possible.
Overall, while I felt that there could’ve been a little more in terms of bonuses, the Graveyard Shift Blu-Ray is a great pick up to add to your Stephen King collection or if you’re a fan of the film. The film is priced at $23.99 which is a good bargain considering that this isn’t a Collector’s Edition with a high end transition or a dozen extras. It’s a movie that is perfect to watch on a hot summer day considering the sweltering atmosphere that is shown on screen.
While the COVID-19 pandemic may have put movie theaters on hold, it’s not stopping video companies from releasing new titles for fans to own. Shout Factory is no exception as they continue to release new Collector’s Editions of movies. This week they released a new title in their growing John Carpenter library starring one of his most iconic characters ever written for film. I’m talking of course about antihero Snake Plissken as he goes from the Big Apple to the City of Angels in the 1996 film “Escape From L.A.!”
“Escape From L.A” was pretty much a remake/retelling of the first movie. Set in 2013, Snake is once again captured and is tasked by the government to rescue the rogue daughter of the President of the United States whom is in possession of a device that could obliterate the world. The film was known for its near shot for shot resemblance of its predecessor complete with a big named cast for the time and dated effects. It’s $50 million budget was the biggest ever for a Carpenter movie. The film released to mixed reviews from critics and fans and recuperated half of its money at the box office.
Shout Factory’s new Collector’s Edition of “Escape From L.A.” restores the film in 4K using the original negative and includes several new interviews with the cast and crew along with the Theatrical Trailer all in a special box with a reversible cover sleeve. Shout Factory continues to impress me with its original artwork. The color scheme made the film look bold and futuristic. As I do with all the Collector’s Edition movies from Shout Factory, I reverse the cover art on the Blu Ray box so I have the original art on the box and the official theatrical poster inside the Blu Ray sleeve. It’s a habit of mine, but I do it out of appreciation as I reflect on the film’s origins and its revival.
I just finished watching the film. Although I do not have a 4K television the transfer of the film is slick. The colors and the lighting of the movie really come out onto the screen. One thing I was clearly looking for while watching this was how the cheap effects of the original print would look on this new transition. The scene where Snake travels to Los Angeles via submarine looks smoother and hides away some of the dated CGI. Another scene that improved from its previous theatrical and video counterparts is the motorcycle chase scene where Snake jumps onto a truck. That scene was cleaned up to make it not look like an obvious blue/green screen scene. While these are much wanted improvements, there are some scenes that still stick out like sore thumbs. The infamous surfing scene looks glossy and colorful but does not hold up. Overall, it was great revisiting this movie even if it’s nothing more than a doppelganger of its predecessor.
As for the bonus extras, there are a total of six new interviews featuring certain members of the cast and crew. The interviews feature Stacy Keach, Bruce Campbell, frequent Carpenter actor Peter Jason, Cuervo Jones himself, George Corraface, Special Effects Artist Jim McPherson and Visual Effects Artist David Jones. The Stacy Keach interview is rather short but talks about his relationship with John Carpenter and how he approached his character of Commander Malloy. He does talk about a personal moment on the film that changed his life, but I won’t spoil it. The Bruce Campbell interview is an audio only interview with clips of his performance and stills of the makeup he had to put on for his character. He provides some great insight on his experience doing film which was contrast from Stacy Keach’s experience. The interview does sound dated as he mentions that he recently worked with Kurt Russell again on “Sky High” (which came out in 2005). Peter Jason, George Corraface, Jim McPherson and David Jones have the longest interviews and they all talked about their background, previous jobs and how they joined the project. I have to say the McPherson and Jones interviews were my favorites because they had some great stories on set as well as how they approached their roles.
The biggest disappointment from this Collector’s Edition release is there are no audio commentary tracks for the movie. I love audio commentaries and I put them on during my second viewings of a new release. It would have been great to have John Carpenter reflect on making the film and how he feels about it today. If they couldn’t get Carpenter to do a commentary, they could’ve gone after anyone else from the cast and crew. I’m surprised they didn’t ask any of the interviewees to provide a commentary on their experience and stories.
Once again Shout Factory does an impressive job of bringing a cult classic back to life and in the best format possible. Unlike The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills who botches his patients and requires numerous organ transplants, the facelift of this film is a success. Even if you don’t have a 4K television, you’ll be in awe at its look and the bonus extras and packaging give you the full experience of enjoying Snake Plissken’s next adventure. The Collector’s Edition of “Escape From L.A” is a great addition to their ever-growing library of John Carpenter films.