View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (Photo: Kino)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
BORN FOR HELL (1976) / SIEGE (1983) / SKINNED DEEP (2004). Three exploitation flicks are making their American Blu-ray debuts via the Severin label. One of the films is outright good; the other two are … not so good.
Based on a real-life 1966 slaughter involving American mass murderer Richard Speck but taking place in Belfast rather than Chicago, the competently filmed but one-note Born for Hell — a Canadian, West German, French and Italian co-production — finds a Vietnam War veteran (Mathieu Carrière) trying to reach the U.S. but first ending up in Ireland in the midst of a series of IRA bombings. A disturbed individual, he ends up breaking into a home occupied by eight student nurses; deeply misogynistic, he proceeds to murder them one by one after partaking in degenerate sexual activities. By moving the location to a battle-battered Belfast, and by having TV news programs in the background discussing atrocities committed in the Middle East and elsewhere, writer-director Denis Héroux and his three co-scripters obviously wanted to make a larger point about the pervasive nature of evil and the omniscient threats of violence and death. But such a lofty notion can’t be supported by such a shallow and sordid film, and their attempt smacks of pretentiousness in the midst of half-naked (or, in some cases, all-naked) women being terrorized, raped, and bloodily dispatched by way of a phallic switchblade.
Canada’s answer to John Carpenter’s 1976 gem Assault on Precinct 13, Siege (also known as Self Defense) is a tense and exciting yarn that employs the 1981 police strike in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for its backdrop. With no one around to protect the innocent, five right-wing deplorables descend upon a gay bar and proceed to bully its patrons. When the bartender is accidentally killed, the homophobic punks make a call to their boss, a middle-aged man (Doug Lennox) in charge of a fascistic outfit known as the New Order — he turns up and shockingly puts a bullet in the back of the head of each witness. But one customer (Terry-David Despres) manages to escape and ends up in the apartment of Horatio (Tom Nardini), who’s hanging out with his girlfriend (Brenda Bazinet), his best friend (Darel Haeny), and two students from a nearby school for the blind (Jack Blum and Keith Knight, instantly recognizable to fans of the 1979 Bill Murray hit Meatballs for respectively playing Spaz and Fink). Knowing they’re all marked for termination, Horatio and his friends must use whatever is available in their cramped quarters to ward off the attackers. It’s more than likely that writer-director Paul Donovan and co-director Maura O’Connell borrowed the framework of Assault on Precinct 13 for their own low-budget thriller, but the pacing, the characterizations, and especially the creativity at work are all their own.
Certainly not to be confused with Blake Edwards’ Skin Deep (reviewed just two weeks ago here), Skinned Deep is basically a subpar variation on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, albeit one boasting of some groovy effects. A typical American family (well, typical of the MAGA strain, at any rate) finds itself at the mercy of a murderous clan of country folk headed by a soft-spoken matriarch (Liz Little). Surgeon General (alternately played by Aaron Sims and Kurt Carley), a mute mutant sporting a metallic jaw, kills the obnoxious mom, the doofus dad, and the smarmy little brother, but teenage sister Tina (Karoline Brandt) is spared so that she may become the companion of the freakish Brain (Jay Dugré). In addition to Surgeon General and Brain, there’s another brother who’s called Plates (Warwick Davis of Willow and Ewok fame!) because he loves plates and can throw them as deadly weapons. The plotting is wretched (why is Tina calling out for help in a house populated only by murderous freaks?) and the acting is strictly amateur hour, but the design of the mutants and their surroundings is inspired — Surgeon General is every bit as menacing as his slasher siblings Michael Myers and Jason — and the movie is simply too bizarre to completely dismiss. That’s Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman as one of the elderly bikers who stand up to the crazies.
Severin has assembled nice Blu-ray packages for all three films (each sold separately). Born for Hell contains the Director’s Cut as well as the slightly shorter U.S. video release version titled Naked Massacre. Extras include an interview with Carrière; a video essay on the film; two discussions about Richard Speck; and the trailer. Siege contains the theatrical cut and an extended version that’s approximately 10 minutes longer. Extras consist of audio commentary by Donovan and the trailer. Extras on Skinned Deep consist of audio commentary by select cast and crew members; a retrospective piece; an archival making-of featurette; and the trailer.
Born for Hell: ★½
Skinned Deep: ★★
COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968). The first of the five collaborations between Clint Eastwood and his mentor, director Don Siegel, Coogan’s Bluff has been revealed in the long run as the weakest. (The others, for the record, are Two Mules for Sister Sara, reviewed here, The Beguiled, reviewed here, Dirty Harry, and Escape from Alcatraz.) The hook is effective: Arizona deputy sheriff Coogan (Eastwood) is sent to New York to bring back captured killer Jimmy Ringerman (Don Stroud), but before they can leave the Big Apple, Ringerman escapes with the help of his spacey girlfriend Linny Raven (Tisha Sterling) and his friend Pushie (David Doyle, Charlie’s Angels’ Bosley). Coogan elects to remain in town until he recaptures his prisoner, much to the chagrin of the testy NYC detective McElroy (Lee J. Cobb). The material involving Coogan’s pursuit of Ringerman is solid, and there’s an amusing running gag in which everyone assumes that this Arizona man with the cowboy hat and boots is from Texas (including a floozy who bellows, “Texas faggot!,” a line more appropriate for the following year’s Midnight Cowboy). But far too much of the running time is spent on a dreary relationship between Coogan and a probation officer played by Susan Clark; their will-they-or-won’t-they status would grow tiresome even in a romantic comedy, and painting this supposedly smart and independent woman as a simpering doormat doesn’t help, either. Lalo Schifin contributes a fine score, although I could have done without the two songs he wrote for The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peels. Incidentally, Coogan’s Bluff was the basis for McCloud, the long-running ’70s TV series starring Dennis Weaver.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (Straight to Hell); audio commentary by Sledge Hammer! creator Alan Spencer; an interview with Stroud; and the theatrical trailer.
MOMMIE DEAREST (1981). Although this biopic of Joan Crawford was critically hammered upon its initial release, what’s been largely forgotten is that the scribes were divided on the merits of Faye Dunaway’s performance, with many praising her deliriously over-the-top work while others mercilessly panned it. Leonard Maltin stated that Crawford is “brilliantly played by Dunaway,” Roger Ebert (in a 1-star review) opined that Dunaway is “stunningly suggestive and convincing,” and both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics voted her first runner-up in the Best Actress category. Over time, though, the film’s enduring status as a camp classic has completely carried Dunaway along on its skirt — her performance is now considered as rancid as the movie. But honestly, Joan Crawford was viewed as a larger-than-life diva, so why should Dunaway play the part any other way? The problem with the performance is that it becomes increasingly tiresome, less the fault of Dunaway than of the director (the usually dependable Frank Perry) and team of scripters. Based on Christina Crawford’s highly disputed bestseller, this details how Joan was rarely less than monstrous toward her adopted daughter over the course of several decades. Given its surface exploration of Hollywood, the poor acting by most of the supporting players (Diana Scarwid is especially terrible as the grown Christina), and its plethora of memorably bad quotes (starting with “No wire hangers … ever!” “Wire hangers! Why? Whyyyyy?” and “Don’t FUCK with me, fellas!”), it’s not surprising that this joined the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Heavy Metal on the midnight movie circuit.
Extras on the Paramount Presents Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by filmmaker John Waters; audio commentary by drag queen Hedda Lettuce; a trio of making-of featurettes; and a photo gallery.
STRANGER ON THE RUN (1967). Given its top-of-the-line cast and the usual professionalism of director Don Siegel (the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, reviewed here, Flaming Star, and Coogan’s Bluff above), it’s sometimes hard to accept that Stranger on the Run was a made-for-TV movie that originally debuted on NBC — the biggest tell is the number of fade-to-blacks that helpfully show where the commercials should be placed. Otherwise, this is a theater-worthy Western that takes place in one of those dusty towns where the railroad reigns supreme. Vince McKay (Michael Parks) is the local sheriff, and while he can depend on his aging right-hand man Hotchkiss (Dan Duryea), he realizes that the other enforcers are nothing more than brutish ex-convicts who have been given a badge and a gun. Setting matters in motion is Ben Chamberlain (Henry Fonda), a drunken vagrant who has come to town to deliver a message to one of its residents. After a murder occurs, Ben knows he’ll be blamed, so he tries to outrun the corrupt lawmen — one of whom is doubtless the actual killer. Anne Baxter co-stars as a widow who slowly warms up to Ben even as she’s worried that her young son (Michael Burns) will join the gunslingers in their unsavory pursuit, while Sal Mineo and future softcore porn purveyor Zalman King (Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries) are cast as two of the seedy enforcers. The ending could be stronger, but Stranger on the Run is nevertheless a sturdy oater featuring stellar contributions by Fonda and Duryea.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and the broadcast TV trailer.
THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (1986). Upon its late-summer theatrical release back in ’86, this animated effort was met with blistering reviews (including mine for my college newspaper) and nonexistent box office. Over the years, though, the film has picked up quite the sizable following, and even many modern reviewers who grew up on the movie are penning lines on the order of, “Yeah, it’s not that great, but I love it!” Certainly, the nostalgists and fanboys are welcome to this one, and they should elevate my rating by 10 or 12 stars. As for me, I had hoped that the subsequent releases of those awful Michael Bay Transformers sequels would make this one now look good by comparison. No such luck, as it’s as torturous to endure as ever. The most dismal aspect is the participation of Orson Welles, voicing the world-devouring planet Unicron. Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane, merely considered the greatest motion picture ever made. Welles’ final film was … this, and that’s likely the most depressing career trajectory ever. Created solely to sell a new line of toys, this focuses on yet another rumble between the Autobots and the Decepticons, with Unicron tossed into the mix. Among the participating actors are Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson, and Lionel Stander, but most of the voices are so electronically altered that the filmmakers might as well have saved some dough by ordering studio interns to man the parts. A joyless jumble, this features cheapjack animation and one of the worst movie songs of its decade (Stan Bush’s “The Touch”).
Shout! Factory and Hasbro are honoring the film’s 35th anniversary with a Limited Edition 4K UHD + Blu-ray Steelbook certain to please the Trans fans. Extras include audio commentary by director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille, and co-star Susan Blu (who voices Arcee); a retrospective documentary from 2016; and feature-length storyboards. The set also contains four exclusive art cards.
THE VALDEZ HORSES (1973). Originally released in the U.S. with the title Chino but called The Valdez Horses in several other territories (and Valdez the Halfbreed in another handful), this Western from director John Sturges (The Great Escape) proves to be a sizable disappointment. This troubled production didn’t even reach our shores until 1975, and even then it wasn’t picked up by a major studio like Warner or Columbia but instead handled by the obscure Intercontinental Releasing Corporation. An Italian-French-Spanish collaboration, this stars Charles Bronson as Chino Valdez, a half-Mexican, half-Native American horse breeder who just wants to tend to his animals in peace. But his solitude is interrupted first by Jamie Wagner (Vincent Van Patten), a teenage runaway who becomes his assistant, and then by Catherine Maral (Jill Ireland), the sister of his bullying neighbor (Marcel Bozzuffi). Needless to say, he also has to deal with the usual assortment of racist yahoos. The relationship between Chino and the boy is more interesting than Chino’s romance with Catherine — Bronson and Ireland were happily married in real life, but, with rare exception (From Noon Till Three, reviewed here), they generated little chemistry on screen — and Chino’s feud with her brother is only half-heartedly presented. Don’t miss the awful scene (reportedly one of the reshoots done without the cooperation of Sturges) in which two horses copulate, which of course gives Chino an idea of what he and Catherine should be doing.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by author Paul Talbot (Bronson’s Loose!); an interview with Van Patten; alternate opening titles; and theatrical trailers for nine other Bronson vehicles available on the Kino label.