LONE WOLF AND CUB (1972-74)
The set-up: After his wife is killed by the venomous Yagyū clan that usurps his role as local Shogunate Executioner, a masterless ronin named Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) wanders the feudal Japanese countryside with his infant son Daigoro as assassins for hire. (Yes, the boy gets to help a little.) But he is also on a mission of vengeance, one which invites conflict all too easy as his nemeses continually seek to eliminate him. They will find it harder than they think.
The breakdown: Inspired by Kazuo Koike’s famous manga, this beguiling six-film series was ultraviolent for its time, especially considering the beheadings and arterial spray that the boy is regularly exposed to. Yet despite his violent ways, Ogami has a code of ethics and honor and often puts his life on the line for women who are in distress or being exploited. (He also dispatches many badass female warriors.) His worldview helps ground a nihilistic story of a single father and his son walking the “Demon Path in Hell” in exchange for revenge. The last movie even takes a fun turn into supernatural territory. Lavishly packaged, this three-disc set includes solid featurettes, an excellent essay by Japanese pop culture expert Patrick Macias, and the 1980 American release Shogun Assassin that takes scenes from the whole series and mashes them up into a new movie.
The set-up: After the a dozen alien vessels descend upon different cities around the world, scientists and military personnel try to communicate with these quiet and unseen visitors. In America, a linguist (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) try to make a breakthrough before less friendly human forces take drastic measures against what some perceive as a global threat.
The breakdown: Hollywood has come to embrace more cerebral sci-fi in recent years, and Arrival is certainly one of the best examples. The story takes time to unfold, but there are enough personal and political entanglements to move the narrative forward and balance out the elegant special effects. The generous bonus features really delve into the philosophy and artistry behind the film and how the entire team behind it really labored to create something original and different. And they succeeded.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)
The set-up: After an enigmatic, highly private young man named Mr. Newton (an aloof yet charismatic David Bowie) quietly arrives on Earth, he quickly establishes a lucrative corporation that develops new technologies. His closest allies include a waitress turned his personal companion (Candy Clark), patent lawyer turned CEO (Buck Henry), and philandering professor turned befuddled corporate scientist (Rip Torn). When American companies become irked with and suspicious of Newton’s intentions and identity, they try to hamper his plans, which they do not realize involve him returning to his home planet.
The breakdown: Director Nicolas Roeg’s film reportedly deviated quite a bit from its source novel, but its meditative narrative provides plenty of intriguing imagery even if the story takes a long time to unfold. It does offer food for thought. Roeg has often upended conventional expectations by injecting his stories with surreal sequences and unpredictable twists. (And hey, some Bowie fans will be pleased with his nude scenes.) The basic plot here is simple, but the flourishes help to hone in on what it really seems to be about: the conflict of conformity and trying to maintain one’s individuality in a society that encourages stifling it. The main characters tend to self medicate in the face of instability. The Man Who Fell To Earth is like an adult E.T. minus the wide-eyed wonder and overt optimism. The limited edition release includes a 72-page book, small poster, postcards, and three hours of bonus features, mostly one on one interviews with cast and crew. The most precious is an eight-minute clip of Bowie on French TV in 1977. He felt he was going to use less words in his upcoming music because he felt he had less to say. That certainly did not stay true.
WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967)
The set-up: After the husband of a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) accepts a doll with an illicit cargo as a gift from a stranger, three thugs (Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston) masquerading as various people try to find a way to get her turn it over to them when her spouse is gone. What starts off as a deceitful game turns downright sinister when the doll is discovered missing and the woman catches onto their charade.
The breakdown: Hepburn deservedly got her fifth Oscar nomination for this film, which manages to lull us into a semi-state of complacency when one of the heavies shows sympathy for her confused character. Twists in the tale keep us guessing her fate until the end, and the finale has a great jump scare which still works 50 years later. Some thrillers do not age well; despite a touch of melodrama, Wait Until Dark shines through today.
Back in the ’80s, Vestron Video specialized in genre movie fare, often of the direct-to-video variety, and now Lionsgate is curating the Collectors’ Series for fans of this company’s culty output. Both of the following films were theatrical releases that grew in stature on video.
Chopping Mall (1986) is a tale of mall mayhem as teens who party after hours at a closed furniture store become prey for armed and malfunctioning security robots. The clueless kids soon have to find weapons and fend off their rolling assassins before they are lasered into oblivion. This low budget sci-fi horror hybrid has the requisite elements of the time: cute, horny teens misbehaving while outside forces seemingly punish them for their misdemeanors. Director/co-writer Jim Wynorski amps up the action and pace in spite of some dubious acting, and the movie’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility, not to mention some sleek looking killbots, make this a cheeky B-movie blast.
The Gate (1987) is a PG-13 affair that eschews boobs and blood to reach a younger audience. Through various circumstances, two tween boys have opened a portal to Hell in their suburban backyard, and along with a teen sister and two friends, must find a way to stave off small but brutal creatures that herald the arrival of greater demonic forces. It’s the ideal set-up: Parents away for the weekend, oblivious neighbors, and an imported Satanic metal album that conveniently includes demonic literature. Along with featuring then 13-year-old Stephen Dorff’s film debut, Tibor Takács’ well executed freak fest offers an unusual shift of tone from funny to sinister—a good way to throw you off guard for the third act—and the practical special effects bring the pint-sized villains vividly to life.
Lionsgate’s Vestron reissues are pricier than many ($40 list price, $30 on Amazon), but their restorations look and sound superb, and the wealth of bonus features will delight hardcore fans with hours of featurettes, audio commentaries, and isolated soundtracks. It’s clear from the Chopping Mall interviews that the cast and crew loved shooting in the old Sherman Oaks Galleria, and a look into the creation of the killbots and an animated chat with composer Chuck Cirino are particularly engaging. The most fun aspect of The Gate‘s bonus materials is an examination of the special effects. One would assume that the evil minions in the movie were stop motion creatures, but they were actually costumed extras shot in forced perspective and integrated via matte photography. It was a brilliant strategy that still looks impressive and is a big part of why the film is still fun to watch.
SADAKO VS. KAYAKO (2016)
A Shudder rep deemed this showdown between the eerie ladies from The Ring and The Grudge to be a J-Horror version of Freddy Vs. Jason, but better. I’d say it is on par with its tongue-in-cheek face-off that arises when teen girls each cursed by one of the spirits enlist the aid of an exorcist to ward them off. It helps that the freaky female ghosts conveniently inhabit a similar part of town. The social issues from each source series (media inoculation and domestic violence) get tossed out the window in order to keep this grudge match perky, but that’s okay if one takes this on its own terms. Sadako and Kayako are both creepy and kooky here—sit back and watch the hair fly.