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Blu-ray Reviews for May 22, 2018

Selections from this week’s Blu-ray releases can be found below in this ongoing weekly summary of reviews. Click on any of the following titles to navigate directly to that review. This week’s releases include: Clint Eastwood’s true-life tale of heroism The 15:17 to Paris; Umbrella’s double-feature releases of Death Wish 2 & Death Wish 3 and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown & Death Wish 5: The Face of Death; the dark comedy-action flick Game Night; the under-the-radar fantasy drama I Kill Giants; writer/director Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive! Trilogy;  and the man vs. rat horror tail (ha!) Of Unknown Origin. A list of other titles also available this week can be found at the end.

Distributor: Warner Bros.

In the early evening of August 21, 2015, the world watched in stunned silence as the media reported a thwarted terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris—an attempt prevented by three courageous young Americans traveling through Europe. The film follows the course of the friends’ lives, from the struggles of childhood through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack. Throughout the harrowing ordeal, their friendship never wavers, making it their greatest weapon and allowing them to save the lives of the more than 500 passengers on board.

I’ve yet to see every film Clint Eastwood made as a director, yet I’m still confident when I say that The 15:17 to Paris is his absolute worst yet. For the last decade, he has been on a downward slope, receiving partially undue accolades for his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (which doesn’t hold up) and lots of ironic praise for his addition to the unsubtle “racism is bad” sub-genre with Gran Torino. If you know the filmmaker, especially in his most recent years, you know he has a penchant for maudlin dialogue and “naturalistic” characterization, neither of which transport well to the screen. Even his musical scores tend to be sparse piano or acoustic guitar pinged or plucked at random; they’re about as lifeless as the last decade of Eastwood’s directorial work. The minute you hear the same kind of no-pulse piano-coustic during the opening scene, you should be surprised to note that Eastwood didn’t actually score this one himself, instead farming out the duties to Christian Jacob, to whom Eastwood likely said, “do the same kind of boring, rote stuff I normally do.”

With The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood decided to try his hand at atypical casting, not just in casting the three real heroes from the Paris train attack (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler) to play themselves, but in also casting actors known primarily for comedies in dramatic supporting roles. Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Judy Greer (Arrested Development) play a couple of mothers, Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) a high school principal, Tony Hale (Veep) a beaten down gym teacher, and — wait for it — Jaleel White as yet another teacher. (Yes, TV’s Steve Urkel.) Why? Who honestly the fuck knows, and I’d be very curious to know why Eastwood would cast such a throwaway pop culture figure in such a small role, and who does absolutely nothing of note.

As for our hero trio — and nothing against them, because they’re not professional actors — they can’t act. They try, and the minute they begin, it’s terrible, and you groan, because you know you’re going to be spending much of the film with them.

And speaking of an entire film, since the pictorialized terrorist encounter amounts to nothing more than 20 minutes tops, that means the remainder of the running time has to be filled with…something else. And that’s what you get. The trio as kids, the trio as older kids, the trio on vacation, stints in the military, and not a single of their moments is interesting. Eastwood seems to be vying for Boyhood meets Before Sunrise meets United 93 and, impressively, he botches all three. The 15:17 to Paris might as well be called Three Mini Biographies of Those Three Guys Who Eventually Took The 15:17 to Paris and Did Some Heroics.

No one would ever argue that what these three men did wasn’t brave. They intervened in a terrorist plot, subdued a would-be murderer, and saved lives. Did they deserve a movie about their efforts? I’m not sure — maybe — though not every single heroic act warrants a 90+ minute dramatization. But I do know they deserved one much better than the one they got.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Making Every Second Count: Join Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler – the three Americans who stopped the attack – as they take us moment-by-moment through the real-life drama, just as they lived it.
  • Portrait of Courage: Join Oscar® winner Eastwood and his creative team as they reveal the aspects of the story that moved them and why they took the bold step of casting the three Americans to play themselves in the film.

Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment (Region Free Releases)

Death Wish 2: In an attempt to put his grisly past behind him, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has moved to Los Angeles to begin life anew. After a violent altercation with a bunch of street thugs, Kersey is once again a marked man. A legacy of violence is unleashed as Kersey sets out to track down the five thugs who have turned his life upside down and provided him with an insatiable drive for vengeance.   

Death Wish 3: Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) arrives in New York to visit an old friend, but is horrified to find him the victim of a brutal attack. Kersey snaps back into his old ways – gearing up as the silent avenger once more – ready to strike back against injustice and wage bloody war against the city’s growing population of thugs and reprobates.

(Portions of this review were excerpted from a previously published and too-long retrospective on Death Wish 3.)

The unexpected tonal change in the Death Wish series very much mirrors that of the Rambo: First Blood series, in that their increasingly absurd entries succeeded in not only becoming so removed from their first films’ original ideals that they barely resembled each other, but also somehow established a precedent of cartoon violence for which those series would ultimately be known. As far as Death Wish goes, this can be likened to the involvement of the legendary Cannon Films, who produced all four sequels, and who are responsible for perhaps some of the most iconic B-action films of all time.

1974’s Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, actually achieved a modicum of critical success, but landed much better with audiences and was a minor box office hit (none of which the pitiful Eli Roth remake from this year managed to do). You might think that a sequel was inevitable, but you must remember that during this era, sequels weren’t nearly as commonplace as they’d eventually become. Death Wish 2 was actually one of the first sequels to be made in what would eventually become a very marketable franchise. It’s also the worst sequel in the series. Based on the finished film, it’s clear Death Wish 2 was eager to hit all the same beats as its predecessor without too much deviation. And its version of Paul Kersey (Bronson) was eager to get to his vigilantism, this time not even giving law enforcement the chance to fail him before he slipped on his knit hat, grabbed a revolver, and took to the streets — this time hunting down the actual punks responsible for the defilement and death of his daughter, hereby teschewing the “any punk’ll do” mentality that gave the original film its voice.

Death Wish 2 is the grindhouse entry of the series. It’s grimy, slimy, violent, and discomorting, courtesy of the returning and controversial Michael Winner. For those unfamiliar with the deceased British director, he was the 1970s/80s version of Michael Bay: his talents were hardly ever commended, and not many good films can be found in his filmography, but he always turned a profit for studios, so they were eager to keep him employed. In an almost spiteful reaction to some of the critical drubbings he received on its predecessor, he ups the cruelty for the sequel: the rape scene lasts longer, with more graphic detail and softcore flourishes, and with the added taboo of the victim being mentally handicapped. It also ends in her equally graphic suicide. The reactionary violence perpetrated by “mourning” Paul Kersey that then unfolds results in more bodies dropped, right down to a completely unrealistic mano-a-mano finale set within a hospital (which allows for a small role by Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).

Death Wish promotes private justice!” those 1974 reviews stated with condemnation. Winner responded with his middle finger in the form of Death Wish 2 in response.  

And then there’s Death Wish 3, again helmed by Winner, and considered by many to be the standout of the series for just how ridiculous it is. It’s the equivalent of a live-action “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon — a hyper-violent marriage of Grumpy Old Men and Home Alone that includes a third-act extended finale where more time is dedicated to people dying than people not dying.

Those people who call Death Wish 3 the series standout are kind of right…depending of course on how seriously we’re considering the rating system. Because Death Wish 3 is kind of a some kind of masterpiece. It’s Charles Bronson meets Merry Melodies. It’s an unabashed series of vignettes in which people are killed in extremely disparate ways, loosely connected only by one common thread: they deserve it. Kersey knows they deserve it, the audience knows they deserve it, and the audience wants Kersey to make it rain bodies. And by gosh, does he ever. While the previous two Death Wish films, each in their own ways, wanted to make killing ugly, and revenge conflicting, Death Wish 3 wants you to eat your fucking popcorn and enjoy the carnage, you assholes. Out of sight is any commentary or sense of confliction. There are no warring minds re: revenge versus justice. Kersey barely needs a reason to begin unpacking all of his weapons of mass destruction. Evidently he can’t wait to do it. He’s no longer haunted by the change that’s taken place inside him, turning him from mild-mannered architect/widower to a nonplussed bachelor/accomplished killing machine. His ease at life-taking has come to define him. In previous Death Wish films, the vigilante murders had been committed in response to the frustration spurred by feelings of helplessness; in Death Wish 3, they are cathartic release. They are the unleashing pent-up blue balls of a mentally exhausted neighborhood so beaten down and regressed by daily victimization that rioting in the streets and blood in the gutter is tantamount to ejaculatory celebration. To come away with the message “violence isn’t the answer” at film’s end, where Kersey grasps his suitcases and heroically marches down a street littered with flaming cars, dead bodies, and screaming police sirens — it’s the lone rider leaving that Old West town at sun-up — is to embrace your delusion. Death Wish 3 makes one thing very clear: violence works — works well, works often, and should be utilized for every possible conflict.

Death Wish 3 so changed the overall tenor of the series that there would be no returning to semi-respectable ground, which is why the remaining sequels don’t hold a candle, either in terms of being a rock’em sock’em silly time, or of actually attempting to be engaging, thoughtful films. But the Cannon Group, enjoying another hit, obviously had dollar signs in their eyes and typically premature Death Wish 4 posters floating around in their brains…


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Contains both the theatrical and unrated cuts of Death Wish 2
  • Death Wish 2: Unrated Director’s Cut
  • Death Wish 2 Trailer
  • Death Wish 2 TV Spot version 1
  • Death Wish 2 TV Spot Version 2
  • Death Wish 3 Trailer
  • Death Wish 3 TV spot
  • Interviews with cast members Alex Winter, Robin Sherwood, screenwriter David Engelbach, and Todd Roberts, son of producer Bobby Roberts. (Extended interviews from Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo)
  • Death Wish 2: Original Theatrical Cut
  • Death Wish 2: TV Cut
  • Death Wish 2: Greek VHS Cut

Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment (Region Free Releases)

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown: Four times the action, four times the suspense – notorious crusader Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson, The Dirty Dozen) returns to settle old scores and make new enemies in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, from veteran action director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear). With the tragic cocaine-induced death of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter Kersey steps into the breach and faces-off against two rival drug gangs waging war in the blood-drenched inner city. Even at the best of times the streets of LA are never safe – run by pimps and ruthless drug traffickers, they remain a melting-pot of crime and violence. But when original urban vigilante and one-man justice machine Paul Kersey reaches into his extensive arsenal of weapons to take check, it’s time to run for cover.

Death Wish 5: The Face of Death: After battling on the streets in cities from coast to coast, vigilante, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson, The Magnificent Seven), has moved back to New York. But when his beautiful fiancee, Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down, Hanover Street), is killed and her daughter kidnapped by a kingpin of the underworld, Kersey finds himself back in the war. Kersey’s plan to live anonymously is shattered when he learns that his fiancee was the victim of a protection racket run by her ex-husband, criminal Tommy O’Shea. One by one Kersey hunts down the criminals. Once again upholding the law becomes his way of life… And this time it’s for good.

Following the “disaster” (read: genius) that was Death Wish 3, a minor shake-up occured behind the scenes as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown moved ahead without series director Michael Winner. The why of this is unclear. I’ve seen this attributed to Bronson refusing to work with the director ever again after Winner had allegedly secretly shot additional violent inserts on Death Wish 3 while the conscientiously objecting Bronson wasn’t on set. Another story had Cannon claiming that Winner simply wasn’t interested in further sequels (which will seem suspect soon). Whatever the reason, replacing him was J. Lee Thompson, a far better filmmaker (he directed the original Cape Fear, for one) with whom Bronson had previously worked six times, and with whom he would collaborate twice more following Death Wish 4 for an overall total of nine films. (One of these is the bonkers Bronson crime thriller/slasher flick Ten to Midnight, which is required viewing as far as I’m concerned.)

Being a Cannon Films production, Death Wish 4 is still pretty silly, but following the gonzo previous sequel, there’s at least an effort on behalf of Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman, who had written the Thompson/Bronson flick Murphy’s Law, to ground the Death Wish world back in reality. Although this is called Part 4,  the events of Death Wish 3 go largely ignored, and I can see why. If one’s goal with Death Wish 4 is to adhere to a more realistic world, best not mention the time your lead hero literally killed an entire neighborhood of painted, unionized punks.

Death Wish 4 thankfully feels different from what’s come before, although it still embraces the silliness that would come to define most of Cannon Films’ output. Retired from the vigilante life and living with his replacement wife and daughter, Kersey embraces his old deadly ways when his nu-daughter is killed by drug dealers thanks to her shady, drug addict boyfriend. But this time, instead of taking to the streets and murdering any punk he encounters, Kersey is embroiled in a mystery — one that has him infiltrating two competing drug operations and serving up some serious Yojimbo-style double-cross, all at the request of his mysterious benefactor (played by Cannon go-to guy John P. Ryan).

Thankfully missing from Death Wish 4 is the grit and grime from the first two films. Also thankfully, it’s a sequel that preserves the “let’s have fun!” mentality from Death Wish 3, which was quite honestly that sequel’s only selling point. As mentioned, Death Wish 3 had so changed the trajectory of the series that there was no reverting it back to the path of the original’s respectability. Death Wish 4 pretty ably straddles that line between actually showing off an engaging plot while trying new things, but also blowing up chunky looking dummies that had, just seconds before, been real, living character actors. (And I love a good dummy.)

Following the release of Death Wish 4, Cannon Films was sold to Pathé, and the Golan-Globus cousins were fired. Golan soon joined 21st Century Film Corporation, who immediately kickstarted the redundantly titled Death Wish 5: The Face of Death, the worst sequel in the series since the second entry and the film that Golan hoped would save the ailing company. (It didn’t.)

Death Wish 5 is the most bizarre entry in the franchise, even if the mainstay of Kersey the vigilante remains its chief narrative hook. Again enjoying a quiet life (this time under a new name) with his new girlfriend Olivia and her daughter Chelsea, shit goes sour when Olivia is killed and Chelsea is kidnapped by a maniacal mobster named O’Shea (Michael Parks). Complicating the matter is that O’Shea is Chelsea’s biological father, so the cops (one of whom is played by a generally terrible Saul Rubinek) can’t do anything about it.

Enter the vigilante.

Bronson was 72 when he made Death Wish 5, which was the main dig most critics got in when the critically savaged sequel was released — that the aging action star was far too old to be engaging in something so silly and violent. Not only that, but much of the sequel feels cheap, offering the kind of small scale environments prevalent in direct-to-video features. There are very few city exterior sequences, which had been a stalwart of the series up to that point. The actual cities of New York and Los Angeles had become part and parcel with the stories being explored in those entries; sorry, I have to say it: they became characters. Death Wish 5 was the series’ only Canadian production, and it’s evident that director Allan Goldstein was eager to hide this whenever possible.

Death Wish 5 offers a fair share of entertainment strictly on two terms: the presence of Michael Parks, who absolutely excelled at villainy, and the lunacy involved with Kersey’s murder methods, whether they be remote-controlled soccer ball bombs or poisoned cannolis borrowed from The Godfather III. Beyond that, Death Wish 5 has absolutely nothing else going for it — even the presence of an aging, puffy-faced Bronson, who had been completely over the Death Wish franchise since Part 2, is a serious bummer because you can tell he’s not at all into it — and, as the critics noted, definitely showed his age.

Director Michael Winner, who helmed the first three Death Wish films, once said, “I’d have Charles Bronson starring in Death Wish 26 if I thought it would make a profit.” From the point of view of someone strictly looking for a silly, B-movie good time, I’ll say it’s a shame that the series ran out of steam far before that projection — that is, of course, assuming that some of those never-to-be sequels would have reached the same lunatic heights as seen in Death Wish 3. Because at that point, there was no turning back — no sense in trying to end the series before it jumped the shark, because that shark had most definitely already been jumped. So long as Bronson had been willing, I’d have easily taken 21 more entries — in spite of how terrible the last official sequel had been. Over Charles Bronson’s storied career, he made far better films than the original Death Wish, but the long-running vigilante series would eventually define his career. It’s a shame this was the final theatrical note on which he had to go out.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Audio Commentaries By Paul Talbot
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • TV Spot
  • TV Broadcast Promo
  • VHS Previews
  • Image Gallery

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Bateman and McAdams star as Max and Annie, whose weekly couples game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s charismatic brother, Brooks, arranges a murder mystery party, complete with fake thugs and faux federal agents. So, when Brooks gets kidnapped, it’s all part of the game…right? But as the six uber-competitive gamers set out to solve the case and win, they begin to discover that neither this “game”—nor Brooks—are what they seem to be.

Game Night boasts the kind of silly concept that only works in the comedy genre. Lots of films offer concepts that are beyond belief, but the audience is always willing to suspend disbelief because the art of film allows us and encourages us to do so. So it doesn’t matter, really, that at times Game Night really encourages its audience to not take everything they are seeing so seriously, and to really be forgiving when it comes to a handful of its leaps in logic and its very convenient connective tissue. So long as the characters are likable, and the hook hooky, audiences are happy to delude themselves.

Playing out almost like a parody of David Fincher’s underrated 1997 thriller The Game, Game Night lurches from one environment to the next, pitting its willing/unwilling participants against different antagonists for different reasons, and always with an element of danger. The audience, for the most part, never knows what’s part of “the game” and what’s real, which helps to keep the tension simmering in spite of all the antics and silly humor.

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, previously responsible for the widely dismissed Vacation reboot, present lively direction, staging a handful of excellent action sequences consisting of long, seemingly unbroken takes and interesting camera work. Additionally, and despite being a comedy, Game Night is also fairly dark and surprisingly bloody, with some of its humor generating from the sheer unhappiness experienced by one of its characters over the divorce of his wife.

In general, Game Night is often very funny. Sure, Jason Batemen does the Jason Batemen thing, but Rachel McAdams is clearly having a lot of fun with her role, as she seldom gets to play something so broad and light. (Ditto for Kyle Chandler.) The two pair well on screen (their alternating back-alley puke sounds scene is the best thing), but the supporting characters, though there may be too many of them, enthusiastically help to carry the load and generate a lot of humor. Billy Magnussen, especially, walks away having stolen every scene he’s in as a sort of man child mimbo with an eye for dating Instagram models. 

By the time Game Night ends, the plot has gotten so ludicrous that you’re no longer fully invested in the conflict, but the humor never lets up, which is most important. Game Night had a crap trailer, as comedies often do, but the film itself is a good time and one I recommend.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Gag Reel
  • An Unforgettable Evening: Making Game Night

Distributor: RLJE Films

Teen Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) is the only thing that stands between terrible giants and the destruction of her small town. But as she boldly confronts her fears in increasingly dangerous ways, her new school counselor (Zoe Saldana) leads her to question everything she’s always believed to be true.

(Immediate spoilers to follow. RUN.)

Its 2008 graphic novel notwithstanding, I Kill Giants shares almost an uncomfortable amount of similarity to 2016’s A Monster Calls, itself based on a novel of the same name published in 2011. In both stories, two adolescents escape into the confines of their imaginations to help them make sense of, and try to stop, the cancer that’s eating away at their mothers. Their refusal to accept what is, and which can’t be stopped, forces them to create worlds where they are strong and fearless and, most importantly, victorious. In our own dark times, we often create alternate realities in which to exist where that loved one hasn’t yet passed on, or where the person you love also loves you back. In spite of the momentary moments of comfort this can bring us, reality is never too far behind. Films like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants are allegories for the grieving process; through our young antagonists, we confront the fears of our past and the things which have brought us the most pain and we resurrect that sensation of dealing with something entirely out of our control. Both films offer hope — not for a favorable outcome, but for one where the world won’t end, and life can still go on.

Madison Wolfe (previously seen as another beleaguered character in The Conjuring 2) is a tremendous young actress, and based on her work in I Kill Giants, she can look forward to a long and fruitful career; that she’s already appeared in the likes of Trumbo and True Detective also shows that she knows a good project when she sees it. All of I Kill Giants rides on her shoulders; very few scenes take place without her. And in them she’s either fierce, or stubborn, or acerbically funny. Zoe Saldana as the school’s counselor also does great and affecting work; the scenes between Wolfe and Saldana are among the strongest in the film, and Saldana provides the maternal care that seems to be otherwise missing from Barbara’s life, despite the best intention of her older sister, Karen (an excellent Imogen Poots).

Also of note: the impressive use of CGI for what is clearly a low budget affair. Given the title and concept, yes, giants are brought to life using a mixture of computer graphic imagery and animation, and it never once looks cheap or hokey. Films with similar budgets rely on CGI solely for gunshot wounds and even they manage to look extremely unconvincing. In I Kill Giants, every use of CGI looks theatrical-worthy, and it’s not intermittently used, either. The machinations of Barbara’s imagination are a near constant presence and they are always worthy of tent pole expectations.

Being someone very emotionally affected by A Monster Calls, the secret behind I Kill Giants revealed itself a little earlier than the filmmakers intended. Upon this realization, the goodwill so far wrought was deflated just a bit, but through its performances and its emotional honesty, it earned  the same amount of goodwill as its predecessor by its end. Though the former reigns supreme over the latter, I Kill Giants deserves to stand side-by-side with its spiritual counterpart. It’s still an extremely touching story with an equally important message, and what’s the harm in allowing films to share that burden beyond just the one title?


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • The Making of I Kill Giants – Featurette
  • Anatomy of a Scene – Featurette
  • I Kill Giants Graphic Novel: Chapter 1 – Featurette
  • Photo Gallery

Distributor: Shout! Factory

Experience Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive trilogy like never before in high definition! It’s newborn and … It’s Alive … and murder is what it knows best! A proud couple’s bundle of joy is really a newborn terror in filmmaker Larry Cohen’s cautionary cult hit that tapped into environmental fears. The horror grows when multiple child monsters rampage in the first sequel It Lives Again as two brave parents try to stop them by becoming the bait for their spree. The now global mutants are rounded up and relocated to a far-flung island in It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive. Will a parent’s greatest nightmare become the world’s gravest fear? Find out … if you dare.

I don’t know what’s stranger — that there exists in this world an entire theatrical trilogy (and one remake) about mutant killer babies, or that this aforementioned theatrical trilogy about mutant killer babies can be so…dull.

Years ago, in my youth, I saw the first film of the trio (although I must have also seen the third film at some point, because its opening, I would’ve sworn, is how the first film opened). Even then, when I had utter swill like Ice Cream Man on steady repeat, I remember thinking that it was kind of boring. Thinking that time away from this series would help — that, being older, I would “get” the intention behind the films’ themes — it seemed possible that I would now appreciate It’s Alive, It Lives Again, and It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive.

It didn’t, and I don’t.

Sure, I “get” the point now — John P. Ryan, aka the villain from way many Cannon Films movies — really didn’t want to have a second kid, and this before realizing that kid was a carnivorous mutant baby! It Lives Again kinda sorta tells the same story, but this time with more of an emphasis on the mother of the mutant (Kathleen Lloyd), and it actually manages to be a slight improvement over its predecessor, offering better pacing and a more engaging story. It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive threatens to be the most interesting of the trilogy, opening in a courtroom scene that has a mutant baby chained and behind the bars of a cage. Michael Moriarty (a frequent Larry Cohen collaborator), father of the mutant baby, is tasked with proving that he’s not afraid of his own son; if he can, then hence, the baby isn’t a threat to society at large. This is the most interesting sequence, and the most effective, in the entire trilogy, but, like the first two films, It’s Alive 3 soon descends into a slog then ends up as an unimaginative riff on The Most Dangerous Game.

The most exciting thing about Shout! Factory’s release of the It’s Alive trilogy is not the release of these movies, but what this release represents: finally, access to the films from the Warner Bros. library. Here’s a quarter’s worth of education for those not following the ins and outs of third-party distribution: labels like Shout! Factory don’t own most of the films they release — instead, they obtain licenses to release them. Shout! and other labels have worked with many other major studios over the years, like Universal and MGM, to release gussied up editions that the actual majors didn’t really care enough about about to release on their own. Warner Bros. was a studio always infamous for not licensing out any of their material, but as the physical media format continues its decline into obscurity, the studio may have finally recognized that the time to capitalize on physical releases is running out, and they — like a lot of other studios — have produced a lot of garbage that’s not worth their own manpower. Enter speciality distributors willing to put the effort into something like It’s Alive, or The Rage: Carrie 2, or any of the Psycho sequels. Though Warner wasn’t a huge genre enthusiast, ever, they are technically the parent company of New Line Cinema, owners of lots of genre titles, most notably the Nightmare on Elm Street series and the latter half of Jason Voorhees’ murderous career. If I had to speculate, I’d say Shout! and Warner are testing the waters with It’s Alive — a series well known enough that horror fans are eager to own it, but also not such a risk that the studio won’t feel slighted for not having released something similar themselves in the event that it doesn’t perform. Shout! takes all the risk and Warner gets paid their fee one way or another — so, finally, why not give it a whirl?

It’s Alive on Blu-ray has pleased many genre folks — Shout! has done a solid job on this release; the PQ and AQ are commendable — but I’m more pleased about what Shout!’s new agreement with Warner Bros. represents, and what it could offer down the road. (Can we finally get William Malone’s remake of House on Haunted Hill on Blu-ray, please?)


The complete list of special features is as follows:


  • NEW 2K Scan Of The Original Film Elements
  • NEW Cohen’s Alive: Looking Back At The It’s Alive Films Featuring Interviews With Writer/Producer/Director Larry Cohen, Actors James Dixon, Michael Moriarty And Laurene Landon, And More…
  • NEW It’s Alive At The Nuart: The 40th Anniversary Screening With Larry Cohen
  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Producer/Director Larry Cohen
  • Radio Spots
  • TV Spots
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery


  • NEW 2K Scan Of The Original Film Elements
  • Audio Commentary With Writer/Producer/Director Larry Cohen
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery


  • NEW 2K Scan Of The Original Film Elements
  • NEW Interview With Special Effects Makeup Designer Steve Neill
  • Audio Commentary With Writer/Producer/Director Larry Cohen
  • Trailer
  • Still Gallery

Distributor: Shout! Factory

When not mired in the corporate rat race, Wall Street executive Bart Hughes is king of his sleek Manhattan brownstone … until he finds his castle under siege by the most determined of home intruders. Forced to enter a rat race of an entirely different sort, Bart takes a stand, with his survival and sanity at stake. Peter Weller (RoboCop, Sons of Anarchy) stars in Of Unknown Origin, an eerie and nerve-tingling suspense thriller directed by George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, Cobra) and the winner of Paris International Film Festival Awards for Best Picture and Actor. Cleverly and compellingly, the film draws you into a battle of wits, namely one with an intruder that’s formidable, persistent and clever enough to lure Bart (Weller) along on an unwitting path to self-destruction. In the battle of man vs. beast, push has come to scream.

You’re going to absorb so much information on rats from watching Of Unknown Origin that it’s absurd, and you’ll never see it coming. Like, apparently, a rat’s teeth never stops growing, hence why they chew, constantly, on everything, in an effort to wear their teeth down. Now, is that true? I have no idea, but a movie starring Peter Weller told me it is, and I CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IT. By film’s end, you will be a walking rat expert and no one will ever date you.

As you settle down to watch Of Unknown Origin, what will resonate with you the most after a while is that it’s honestly kind of good, with an absolutely committed performance by Weller and an almost JAWS-like approach to the material. (There’s even a scene where Weller’s Burt flips through books and photographs of rat attacks suffered by humans, complemented by a similarly moody Williams-esque musical score. It’s a shame none of the pages reflected in Weller’s glasses, or perhaps director George P. Cosmatos figured that might be going a tad too far.)

It’s easy and even kind of understandable to write off Of Unknown Origin if you’ve never had the pleasure, especially when you know that it was a product of the ‘80s, starred a pre-Robocop Peter Weller, and was about one man’s descent into hell thanks to the gigantic rat infesting his New York brownstone. And don’t get me wrong, Of Unknown Origin is silly, but not the kind of silly where you can just dismiss the film out of hand. It’s silly in the sense that it’s man vs. rat, but the concept is taken seriously enough, and Cosmatos is a skilled enough director (let’s pretend that the ghost-directing going on during the shooting of Cobra and Tombstone by Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell*, respectively, were overblown), that the film never feels like outright parody or B-movie stupidity.

And Weller, holy shit — he’s having so much fun with this role, and why wouldn’t he? This is an actor’s dream — the chance to transform, slowly, through the course of one film, starting off as a plain and mild-mannered junior executive and ending the film as a raving madman, willing to go to great lengths to destroy the rat that’s totally ruining his mind — and his own house in the process.

Throughout, Of Unknown Origin maintains a very sly sense of humor, through Weller’s own bemusement with the rodent, as well as the concept itself. And obviously, or maybe not so obviously, it’s also clever satire on the idea of the American Dream — in this case, the perfectly manicured, catalog-ready home: what it says about your status, and the silly lengths one may go to maintain its flawlessness. So, if that’s the case, then what does the rat represent? God knows. How social do you want to get? The scourge of the middle class or the poor? Maybe the homeless? Immigration? (This isn’t far-fetched. Creepshow, more specifically the segment “They’re Creeping Up On You,” in which E.G. Marshall’s hermetically sealed apartment is infested with cockroaches meant to represent the exploding immigrant population in the surrounding city, has explored this ground before.) Weller’s a white, well-to-do, suit-wearing fella who handles “deals” as part of his job, so based on the film itself, the rat can represent almost anything, since white people are scared of almost everything. I mean, sure, Shout!’s own synopsis refers to “the rat race of Wall Street” and that’s a differing and fair allegory, but much more of the conflict takes place within the rat-infested home, with Weller’s job not suffering that much or causing that much undue stress. (Plus I just like my own analysis better because I’m whiney and proud.)

But if you’re not interested in social commentary, that’s fine, because Of Unknown Origin is still entertaining as hell if you’re taking the movie merely at face value. Only in rare cases do I find the animals-run-amok sub-genre entertaining — I’ll re-mention JAWS as a fave, and Alligator as a dark horse, but I’ll also mention that I find Hitchcock’s The Birds kind of stupid and Cujo extremely dull. Having said that, I’ll happily count Of Unknown Origin among the ranks of one of the good ones. Obviously it’s no JAWS, but it’s a hair better than JAWS 2, and that’s not bad. Maybe because, on paper, you wouldn’t think Of Unknown Origin had a chance, and maybe I like an underdog. Or maybe I expected an easily dismissable bullshit B-movie like the distributor’s prior release of Deadly Eyes and got something much more well rendered.

This fancy new edition from Shout! Factory — the second in the distributor’s exciting new deal with Warner Bros. — gets an easy recommendation. Be sure to watch it surrounded by your ratta friends that you bought from the local IKEA, to whom you’ve assigned differing personalities, and then talk to them during the movie and pretend they are talking back to you in little unique rat voices because you are just a total, total weirdo.

*Hey, Tango & Cash!


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • NEW 2K Scan From The Interpositive
  • NEW The Origins Of Unknown Origin – An Interview With Executive Producer Pierre David
  • NEW That Rat Movie – An Interview With Writer Brian Taggert
  • NEW Hey, Weren’t You In Scanners? – An Interview With Actor Louis Del Grande
  • Audio Commentary With Director George P. Cosmatos And Actor Peter Weller
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • Still Gallery

Also Available This Week:

Distributor: Arrow Video

Between Couscous, winner of three César Awards, and the Cannes triumph of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche made Black Venus, a stark portrait of the life of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Baartman was taken from South African home as a 21-year-old and shipped to Georgian London, where she would be caged and exhibited as a freak show. Presented semi-nude, her physique – especially her large buttocks – was the source of much curiosity. But as her ‘fame’ spread, so too did her exploitation…

Centred on a remarkable performance by Cuban actor Yahima Torres as Baartman, Black Venus provides a bleak but barbed exploration of sex, science, race, colonialism and social attitudes.

Special Features:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Brand-new appreciation of Black Venus and the cinema of Abdellatif Kechiche by critic Neil Young
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring and original newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Will Higbee, author of Post-Beur Cinema: North African Émigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France Since 2000

Distributor: Arrow Video

Inspired by the runaway success of the British and American gothic horror films of the sixties, Toho studios brought the vampiric tropes of the Dracula legend to Japanese screens with The Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula – three spookily effective cult classics collectively known as The Bloodthirsty Trilogy.

In The Vampire Doll, a young man goes missing after visiting his girlfriend’s isolated country home. His sister and her boyfriend trace him to the creepy mansion, but their search becomes perilous when they uncover a gruesome family history. Lake of Dracula begins with a young girl suffering a terrifying nightmare of a vampire with blazing golden eyes. Eighteen years later, the dream is revealed to be a hellish prophecy when a strange package containing an empty coffin mysteriously turns up at a nearby lake. In Evil of Dracula, a professor takes up a new post at an all-girls school only to discover the school’s principle conceals a dark secret and the pupils are in grave danger.

Abounding with images of dark thunderous nights, ghostly mansions and bloody fangs, Michio Yamamoto’s trilogy emphasises atmosphere and style and is sure to please both fans of classic gothic horror and Japanese genre cinema.

Special Features:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio
  • Original Japanese soundtracks with optional, newly translated English subtitles
  • Kim Newman on The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, a new video appraisal by the critic and writer
  • Stills gallery
  • Original trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp

Distributor: Arrow Video

A haunting and dreamlike gothic horror/giallo hybrid, Death Smiles on a Murderer is a compelling early work from the legendary sleaze and horror film director Joe D’Amato (Anthropophagus, Emanuelle in America), here billed under his real name Aristide Massaccesi.

Set in Austria in the early 1900s, Death Smiles on a Murderer stars Ewa Aulin, (Candy, Death Laid an Egg) as Greta, a beautiful young woman abused by her brother Franz (Luciano Rossi, Death Walks in High Heels, The Conformist) and left to die in childbirth by her illicit lover, the aristocrat Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Kill, Baby… Kill!). Bereft with grief, Franz reanimates his dead sister using a formula engraved on an ancient Incan medallion. Greta then returns as an undead avenging angel, reaping revenge on the Ravensbrück family and her manically possessive brother.

Presented here in a stunning 2K restoration, D’Amato’s film is a stately and surreal supernatural mystery which benefits from an achingly mournful score by Berto Pisano, several shocking scenes of gore, and a typically sinister performance from Klaus Kinski as a morbid doctor.

Special Features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Italian and English soundtracks
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • New audio commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas
  • D’Amato Smiles on Death, an archival interview in which the director discusses the film
  • All About Ewa, a newly-filmed, career-spanning interview with the Swedish star
  • Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the horror films of Joe D’Amato, new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
  • Original trailers
  • Stills and collections gallery
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Stephen Thrower and film historian Roberto Curti

Distributor: 20th Century-Fox

Bruce Willis is John McClane in the film that launched the billion-dollar action franchise, DIE HARD.  McClane, a New York City cop, flies to L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his wife at a party in her company’s lavish high-rise. Plans change once a group of terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), seize the building and take everyone hostage, McClane slips away and becomes the only chance anyone has in this beginning-to-end heart-stopping action thriller.

Special Features:

  • Commentary by Director John McTiernan and Production Designer Jackson DeGovia
  • Scene-Specific Commentary by Special Effects Supervisor Richard Edlund
  • Subtitle Commentary by Various Cast and Crew
  • The News Casts Featurette
  • Interactive Style Gallery
  • Interactive Articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer
  • Full-Length Screenplay
  • Trailers & TV Spots

Note: Though Fox are billing this new release as a 30th Anniversary Edition, it’s the exact same disc that’s been released ten times already. No special features, no remastered picture. Just FYI for those considering a purchase — you likely already own this.

Distributor: Lionsgate Films

Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana deliver riveting performances in this tense thriller based on real events. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Whitaker) is appointed to head a nationwide investigation, he’s summoned to a maximum-security prison by a notorious murderer seeking clemency (Bana). Inside the brutal prison’s walls, Tutu is drawn into a dangerous, life-changing battle with the cunning criminal in this captivating film from director Roland Joffé.

Special Features: None

Distributor: Arrow Video

After shocking and outraging the world with his genre-defining 1963 gore-fest Blood Feast, exploitation pioneer H.G. Lewis would seek (and positively succeed!) to outdo himself with the deliciously depraved Two Thousand Maniacs!

When a group of Yankee tourists take a detour and wind up in the small Southern town of Pleasant Valley – which has magically rematerialized 100 years after its destruction during the Civil War – they find themselves welcomed by the eager townsfolk as guests of honour at their centennial celebrations. Little do the Northerners know that the festivities are set to include torture, death and dismemberment…

Also including H.G. Lewis’ fist fightin’, hooch-swillin’ epic Moonshine Mountain as a bonus feature, this is one double-dose of hicksploitation truly worthy of an almighty “Yeehah!”

Special Features:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Uncompressed PCM Mono Audio
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Bonus Feature! 1964’s Moonshine Mountain
  • Introductions to the films by H.G. Lewis
  • Archive audio commentary on Two Thousand Maniacs! by H.G. Lewis
  • Two Thousand Maniacs Can’t be Wrong – filmmaker Tim Sullivan on H.G. Lewis’ gore classic
  • Hickspoitation: Confidential – visual essay on the depiction of the American South in exploitation cinema
  • David Friedman: The Gentlemen’s Smut Peddler – a tribute to legendary producer David F. Friedman featuring interviews with H.G. Lewis, filmmakers Fred Olen Ray and Tim Sullivan and editor Bob Murawski
  • Herschell’s Art of Advertising – H.G. Lewis shares his expert opinion on the art of selling movies
  • Two Thousand Maniacs! Outtakes
  • Trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil


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Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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