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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Notes from Blue Underground

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

A couple years back, the Bitsy Award for Studio to Watch went to the cult label Blue Underground. This is not an award we hand out every year, if for no other reason than most years don't provide us with a single contender for our consideration. So when we do anoint a studio with this award, we mean business. And since then, we have indeed been watching.

Blue Underground isn't the most prolific studio on the block. At most, they will release two or three titles a month. And not exactly household names, either. But for connoisseurs of cult cinema, Blue Underground is a fan's dream company. They take their time with their movies, finding the best possible video and audio elements. They compile (or, at the very least, make an attempt to compile) interviews, commentary, and analysis of the films. They seek out vintage promotional materials ranging from trailers to posters, lobby cards, and even soundtrack album cover art. This can be no easy task when you consider that many of these movies, particularly those that hail from Italy, were released and re-released under a wide array of variant titles. For many fans, Blue Underground has become the Criterion Collection of psychotronic cinema. There are die-hard collectors who will purchase a title they've never heard of simply because the DVD was produced by Blue Underground.

So what specifically have they been up to since we bestowed upon them our most coveted Bitsy? Well, they've made Bill Hunt a happy camper by releasing what I can only assume will go down in history as the definitive presentation of The Final Countdown. But what if you're not a fan of the time-traveling Nimitz saga (for which I could hardly blame you... I'm not crazy about it myself)? Not to worry. Blue Underground's catalog probably has a genre for you. If you're any kind of a fan of cult movies, you probably have at least one Blue Underground title in your collection already. If you don't, perhaps one of these recent releases from the studio might tempt you.

Fast Company: 2-Disc Limited Edition

Fast Company: 2-Disc Limited Edition

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/A-

David Cronenberg's fans are an obsessive lot. Believe me, I'm one of them. And it isn't just a matter of wanting to see every single frame of film Cronenberg ever shot. It's also the desire to tie all of these disparate works together into one single, cohesive visionary statement. Cronenberg's fans and critics love nothing better than to discuss how the Canadian director's signature themes and interests can be interpreted in everything he's ever done, from Shivers to Spider and from Naked Lunch to his Nike commercials. Because of this, David Cronenberg's fans and critics do not like to talk about Fast Company.


Made between Rabid and The Brood, Fast Company is unlike anything else Cronenberg has done before or since. Having directed two profitable horror movies, Cronenberg was asked if he'd like to take a crack at a low-budget action movie set in the world of drag racing. Harboring a deep-rooted interest in cars, Cronenberg accepted the gig, figuring it would allow him the opportunity to further refine his still emerging style in a genre he hadn't tackled and with a script he hadn't originated.

Now I'm not going to lie to you and say that David Cronenberg elevates Fast Company to a different level than other racing movies. If you didn't see his name on the credits, you'd never guess that Cronenberg was involved with this movie at all. Certainly the story is more elemental than any of his other works. William Smith stars as Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson, a celebrity racer whose team is sponsored by FastCo brand motor oil. After he's sidelined due to an explosion on the track, FastCo rep John Saxon insists that Lonnie start driving the funny car, since people are paying to see the Lucky Man race no matter what car he's driving. The decision doesn't sit well with Lonnie, since it means kicking Billy "The Kid" Brocker (played by Nicholas Campbell) out of the driving seat. Once Lonnie starts disobeying his corporate handlers, Saxon unceremoniously dumps him. It all leads up to a funny car showdown between the newly independent Lonnie and FastCo's replacement team, headed by Gary "The Blacksmith" Black (Cedric Smith).

Unlike Cronenberg's horror films, which some critics argue transcend or subvert their genre trappings, Fast Company follows the B-movie rules of the genre to a fault. If you don't like racing movies, you're not going to like Cronenberg's racing movie any better. But I do like racing movies and, by that standard, Fast Company is a perfectly enjoyable bit of drive-in fodder. You have to look pretty hard and stretch your definition of auteurism pretty far to include this in your film studies thesis based on the Film Theory of David Cronenberg. But because he's an intelligent and talented filmmaker and not just some hack, Cronenberg does come through with an exciting, sometimes funny and always entertaining drag racing picture. The racing sequences are well executed, though some painfully obvious day-for-night shots do detract a bit from the finale. And while the male cast is uniformly good, the biggest disappointment is that Claudia Jennings, the B-movie goddess who was so wonderful in movies like Unholy Rollers and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, isn't given nearly enough to do in what would turn out to be her final role. She died in a car accident, ironically enough, shortly after this film was completed.

Blue Underground has released Fast Company in two different flavors: a single-disc version and a two-disc limited edition set. The one disc version may be perfectly acceptable for racing fans that don't know or care who David Cronenberg is, but for fans of the director, the limited edition set is really the only option. The second disc includes Cronenberg's early, very rare, very experimental features Stereo and Crimes of the Future. In terms of subject matter and tone, there couldn't be a more unlikely combination than Fast Company and these two abstract mood pieces. But in terms of collecting all of Cronenberg's rarest material in one place, this set is a gold mine.

I saw both Stereo and Crimes of the Future a few months back at the Egyptian Theatre here in Hollywood with Cronenberg present for a Q&A. The first thing he did after the screenings was to congratulate us for making it through the films. These are dense, deliberately paced and highly cerebral films and, Cronenberg admitted, "When I made these, I certainly didn't imagine that someday they'd be shown as a double feature in Hollywood." Stereo, the more difficult of the two, is set at the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry where a group of students participates in experiments in telepathic surgery. Or something like that. I've watched Stereo a couple of times now and I'm still not entirely sure what's going on. Filmed in black and white, Stereo is a silent film, as in completely dead silent. No music or effects chime in. Only an occasional voice-over narrator breaks the spell to explain what we're seeing. Running only 65 minutes, Stereo feels like it's about twice that length. Still, it's a must-see for Cronenberg completists with a lot of arresting imagery and some typically Cronenbergian themes emerging in nascent form.

Crimes of the Future is slightly more accessible. Insane dermatologist Anton Rouge has vanished after millions of women died after contracting Rouge's Malady from his cosmetics. Rouge's clinic, the House of Skin, is now run by Adrian Tripod, who finds himself brought into a world of strange new diseases, conspiracy, and an underground movement to cure Rouge's Malady. As in Stereo, Cronenberg was not yet making movies with an eye toward mass distribution, so Crimes of the Future isn't exactly a crowd-pleaser. But for fans, it's fascinating to see Cronenberg working through his interests and discovering his own cinematic language.

Technically, all three films in this package look very, very good. Stereo and Crimes of the Future are a particular surprise, considering their age and obscurity. Fast Company is presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen and if anything, it looks a little too good, as in those aforementioned day-for-night shots. The audio quality of the early films is hardly worth mentioning, particularly with the mostly silent Stereo. They both sound just fine, so there's nothing to worry about there. On the other hand, Fast Company has been given a powerful sonic upgrade, with choices ranging from the original mono all the way up to a room-rattling 6.1 DTS-ES mix. Drive-in movie purists will want to stick with the mono but the surround mixes are fun to play around with (although, while the surround features make the racing scenes come to life, the novelty may wear off after you get sick of the bargain basement Springsteen-clone rock songs on the soundtrack).

The highlight of the Fast Company extras is a full-length audio commentary by Cronenberg himself. Cronenberg's commentaries are consistently terrific and I'm very happy that he agreed to record one for this footnote to his career. He retains a great deal of affection of the project and seems particularly pleased that it confounds so many of his critics. The audio commentary is warm, informative and often very funny, as when Cronenberg discovers to his pleasure that a scene he thought had been cut (involving motor oil being drizzled on the naked breasts of a female hitchhiker) is actually in the movie after all. Fast Company also includes a pair of interview featurettes. Inside the Character Actors Studio catches up with stars William Smith and John Saxon, who share anecdotes and war stories like a couple of grizzled old veterans. Shooting Cronenberg interviews cinematographer Mark Irwin. Irwin was one of many key creative personnel Cronenberg would first meet on Fast Company and continue to work with (others include editor Ronald Sanders and Cronenberg's brilliant, invaluable production designer Carol Spier). Irwin discusses all of his collaborations with Cronenberg up to The Fly, after which Irwin moved to California and Cronenberg began working with Peter Suschitzky. Also included are the film's trailer, a poster and still gallery, and a bio for Claudia Jennings.

Extras on the bonus disc are somewhat more anemic, restricted to another poster & still gallery and a bio for Cronenberg. Disappointingly, there is no Cronenberg commentary on either Stereo or Crimes of the Future. If there were, the extras would get a solid A+ and Fast Company would get my very highest recommendation for all fans of David Cronenberg. As it is, this is still a solid, highly enjoyable package that finally fills in some big gaps in our knowledge of one of cult cinema's greatest filmmakers.

Grand Slam

Grand Slam

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C/D+

Genres come and go but few have been as surprisingly enduring as the caper movie (or, if you prefer, the heist movie, although the use of the word "caper" does a better job conveying the light-heartedness that is often typical of the genre). Judging by the success of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, the public has not yet grown tired of seeing a group of disparate criminals, each with their own very specific specialty, band together to pull off a seemingly impossible high-stakes robbery. In the 1950's and 60's, the Europeans pretty much cornered the market on this type of movie, particularly French filmmakers like Jules Dassin, the man behind such genuine classics as Rififi and Topkapi. But the French weren't the only ones working in the genre, as evidenced by Italian director Giuliano Montaldo's enjoyable thriller, Grand Slam.


Edward G. Robinson appears as a retired professor whose classroom in Rio de Janeiro was situated directly across the street from a vault where, twice a year, $10 million in diamonds are deposited. After years of study, Robinson has devised a scheme to liberate those diamonds during Carnival. Naturally, Robinson must enlist the aid of, you guessed it, a group of disparate criminals, each with their own very specific specialty. Klaus Kinski is the German ex-military man assigned with the task of breaking into the building. Riccardo Cucciolla is the Italian gadgeteer responsible for getting past the unstoppable Grand Slam burglar alarm. Robert Hoffmann is the refined British valet/safecracker and Georges Rigaud is the French ladies' man who has to distract the vault's bookish key-keeper Janet Leigh.

As the genre dictates, the game takes multiple twists and turns, none of which are particularly surprising (the final twist in particular comes across as more of a weak punchline than a yank-the-rug-out shocker). But Montaldo fills the movie with just enough style and excitement to maintain interest. The heist itself, which is the meat and potatoes of any such film, is an engaging nailbaiter with plenty of unforeseeable events getting in the gang's way. But the real cherry on top is Ennio Morricone's score, particularly the oddly catchy theme that ranks with Morricone's best.

Unfortunately, Blue Underground hasn't lavished the same kind of care on Grand Slam as they have on many of their other titles. The 2.35:1 widescreen picture (enhanced for anamorphic displays, as are all of Blue Underground's widescreen titles) is variable, often appearing soft and none too forgiving to some blue-screen process shots. It's certainly acceptable, barring a major restoration that this film is unlikely to receive. The mono sound is strictly average but again, not a major source of trouble. The audio quality is just fine for what it is.

Extras are limited to the theatrical trailer and another of Blue Underground's ubiquitous poster and still galleries. There are no interviews or commentaries. Not terribly surprising, I suppose, considering that much of the cast and crew have passed away but it would have been nice to see or hear Morricone or Janet Leigh reminisce about the film.

By no means is Grand Slam a classic caper along the lines of Rififi. However, fans of the genre should find much to appreciate here. The Carnival setting is a terrific backdrop for a caper and it's always a pleasure to see Kinski chew some scenery. The disc isn't one of Blue Underground's finest moments but it's a decent bare-bones release of a movie that doesn't deserve to be forgotten.


The Spaghetti Western Collection

Django

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/C+


Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/C+


Run Man Run

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B-


Mannaja: A Man Called Blade

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C+


The Spaghetti Western Collection DjangoDjango Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

Run Man RunMannaja: A Man Called Blade

If you think spaghetti westerns begin and end with Sergio Leone, you're only half right. Without a doubt, Leone revolutionized the wild, wild west with his seminal 1964 work A Fistful of Dollars. But it's easy to forget (or, if you're American, not know at all) that Dollars was such a phenomenon that it spawned literally hundreds of imitators. And while Leone said his goodbyes to the genre in the 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, the spaghetti western kept on chugging along for another decade or so. Granted, a lot of these movies were nothing more than knock-offs that deserve to be forgotten. But the four movies collected in Blue Underground's Spaghetti Western Collection are unique, bizarre films that are overdue for a re-evaluation.

Django, the earliest of these four films, is probably the most famous spaghetti western not directed by Sergio Leone. Franco Nero has the title role, a mysterious loner roaming the west dragging a coffin behind him. After he rescues a disgraced whore from a band of torturers wearing blood-red KKK-type hoods, Django heads to a town to avenge the murder of his family. In classic western style, he ends up stuck between two warring factions, the hooded klan led by Major Jackson, the man who killed Django's wife, and a group of Mexican mercenaries.

In many ways, Django is nearly as good as Leone's westerns. If it isn't the same caliber as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, it's certainly on a par with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Django is a brutal, savage western with such memorable scenes as a man having his ear sliced off and forced into his mouth and the unforgettable destruction of Django's hands. Franco Nero was obviously cast in the Clint Eastwood vein here but goes beyond mere imitation to create his own vivid, strong hero. Django is a near-great movie and should be required viewing for western aficionados.

Django proved to be such a success that it resulted in dozens of unrelated movies having the word "Django" slapped into the title (a bona fide, official sequel wouldn't happen until 1987's Django Strikes Again). Case in point, Guilio Questi's perverse western Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! This is undoubtedly one of the weirdest westerns ever filmed. Imagine if David Lynch took a stab at making a spaghetti western and you're in the right ball park. Tomas Milian stars as The Stranger (he's never actually called Django in the movie itself), a half-breed Mexican doublecrossed by a gang of whites over a fortune in gold. Shot and left for dead, The Stranger is resurrected by a pair of Indians who furnish him with gold bullets and point him toward a town known by their tribe as "The Unhappy Place". The Stranger's double-dealing ex-partners have already arrived and found themselves lynched by the greedy townsfolk, the gold ending up in the hands of the saloon owner and a respected Alderman.

Django Kill is full of odd sights and themes, including a homosexual gang of black-clad fascist outlaws, a madwoman kept locked in an attic, and a nearly subliminal editing style. For an added dose of Lynchian surreality, watch the movie in English. Blue Underground's DVD restores two graphically violent scenes cut from the film's original release that were never dubbed, so when those scenes appear, the dialogue switches to subtitled Italian. Django Kill isn't a complete success but it's so damned peculiar, it's impossible not to become fascinated by it. It's a movie populated almost entirely by villains and its flowing, almost dreamlike style keeps you on your toes throughout.

The most underrated of Blue Underground's western quartet is 1968's Run Man Run, directed by Sergio Sollima. Run Man Run again stars Tomas Milian, this time reprising his role as the knife-throwing Cuchillo from The Big Gundown. When Cuchillo is tossed in jail, he ends up sharing a cell with a Mexican Revolutionary who offers Cuchillo a reward if he'll break him out. Cuchillo does so and returns the man to his people, only to watch him gunned down almost immediately. Before he dies, the revolutionary tells Cuchillo of a fortune in gold hidden in Texas meant to help the cause. Cuchillo sets off to retrieve the treasure but he's got plenty of competition. Also chasing both him and the gold are an ex-marshall, a pair of French government assassins, assorted rival bandits, and even his own fiancee.

What makes Run Man Run such an enjoyable yarn is the broad, colorful group of characters chasing after the gold. Cuchillo is an atypical hero for a western. Instead of a mysterious loner or a noble sheriff, he's a put-upon Mexican peasant forced to live by his wits and his quickness with a knife. Milian is terrific in the role and he creates one of the few spaghetti western heroes that we root for not because of their impenetrable cool but because he's a sympathetic, likeable person. In addition, Run Man Run boasts plenty of memorable setpieces, including Cuchillo being lashed to a windmill (Cuchillo gets tied to a lot of things in this movie), a chase through snow-covered mountains, and a tense knife-vs-gun showdown.

As the genre moved into the 1970's, the spaghetti western began to run out of steam. Parody began to creep in, notably with Enzo Barboni's Trinity series, and usually when that happens, it's time to close the books on the genre. Still, a few serious westerns continued to be made and one of the last was Sergio Martino's Mannaja: A Man Called Blade. Maurizio Merli stars as Mannaja (Italian for "hatchet", Merli's weapon of choice), a ruthless bounty hunter whom we first encounter lopping the hand off an outlaw he's been tracking. Mannaja finds himself in a mining town run by a religious zealot in a wheelchair and his caped right-hand man. The old man instructs his aide to accompany his daughter out of town but, unfortunately for him, the trusted assistant is a two-timing crook who kidnaps the girl and holds her for ransom. Three guesses who the old guy recruits to get the girl back and the first two don't count.

Mannaja has its moments but as a whole isn't nearly as enjoyable as the other three movies in this set. It starts off quite well with the moody chase through the swamps and an early confrontation establishing Mannaja's character and code of ethics. But Martino can't quite sustain the eerie tone of the first scenes. Certain sequences stand out, including Mannaja's burial torture and recuperation in the caves. Overall though, the entire movie would have been well served by being as extreme as those scenes, not to mention the earlier Django films. The movie is still fairly violent but not to the same level as Django Kill, for instance. The music could have been more extreme, too. Most of the music, composed by brothers Guido and Maurizio de Angelis, isn't nearly as effective or memorable as the classic scores by Ennio Morricone. Mannaja remains fairly entertaining but it unfortunately shows the spaghetti western going out with more of a whimper than a bang.

Blue Underground has collected these four films in their cleverly-titled Spaghetti Western Collection box set. Originally, Django was only available in this box but recently Blue Underground reissued the film with a bonus mini-DVD. More about that in a moment. From a technical standpoint, all four movies are presented with great care, restoring them to much of their original glory. Each film has a minimal amount of source print damage, particularly Django, but overall, the movies look better than ever. Each one is 16x9 enhanced and the digital transfers are consistently excellent. Colors are vivid, shadows are solid, and all looks as it should. In addition, each film is presented in either its original Italian or in its English dub (both mono). This is particularly significant in the case of Django. Originally released by Anchor Bay (as a double feature with Django Strikes Again), that version was English only. The Italian dialogue has a number of subtle but significant changes that help establish character and motive. Besides which, this is the first time that we've been able to hear Franco Nero's voice associated with Django and, needless to say, its infinitely preferable to the anonymous actor who did the English dub.

As for extras, the four discs follow a basic template. Each one comes with the original trailer, a couple of well-done bios for the director and the star, and extensive still galleries spotlighting the various international posters and lobby cards for the films. Each disc also has an Easter egg or two, liner notes and, most importantly, a unique featurette featuring contemporary interviews. For Django, Franco Nero and Assistant Director Ruggero Deodato (who would go on to direct controversial films of his own like Cannibal Holocaust) provide a solid background in the 13-minute Django: The One and Only. Director Guilio Questi and stars Tomas Milian and Ray Lovelock look back at Django Kill in the 21-minute Django, Tell! Milian is back, this time with director Sergio Sollima on the 17-minute Run Man Run: 35 Years Running. And director Sergio Martino recalls Mannaja and the other highlights of his career in the 12-minute A Man Called Sergio.

But that's not all. Both Django and Run Man Run have some additional tricks up their sleeve. The reissued Django includes a mini-disc featuring the short film The Last Pistolero, starring Franco Nero. This is actually a very good short, well worth watching, but if you already bought the Spaghetti Western Collection box, it's not worth buying Django again just to catch The Last Pistolero. Run Man Run includes the original Italian title sequence and the best extra of any of these discs, a vintage 38-minute documentary from the 60's called Westerns Italian Style. You don't really learn a great deal from this but you do get to see some interesting behind-the-scenes footage from Run Man Run, The Great Silence, and even Once Upon a Time in the West, plus interviews and candid behind-the-scenes shots of such notables as Sergo Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Klaus Kinski. And you get to hear the musical stylings of the western-themed pop combo John and Wayne! What more could you ask for?

Western fans owe Blue Underground some thanks for their Spaghetti Western Collection. Each of these films is well worth watching and, for real buffs, definitely worth owning. And these discs make significant restorations to each film. Django restores the original Italian soundtrack, Django Kill restores two scenes previously cut from American prints, and Run Man Run and Mannaja are both fairly obscure films that needed to be introduced to a new audience. As long as these cult classics are available in editions like these, people will continue to discover the bizarre joys of the spaghetti western, despite the fact that it's truly a genre whose time has come and gone.


On to Part Two

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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