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Plus: CHRISTMAS EVIL, TWILIGHT ZONE, and Upcoming Titles.

By John Thonen     December 12, 2000

Christmas is a family kind of timeunless, of course, you're in the Manson Familyso it's not surprising that holiday fare, cartoons and comedies are a dominant presence amongst the week's new releases. What is odd, however, is just how far removed from 'family viewing' some of the titles are. The most conventional 'kiddie' item for the week is Dreamworks' Home Entertainment's The Road To El Dorado. This was Dreamworks shot at cementing the inroad into Disney's animation stranglehold which the success of The Prince of Egypt had created. As much as I'd like to see Disney's dominance of this genre broken, this was no more the film to do it than was Fox's costly flop, Titan A.E.

The film tells the tale of Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (voice of Kevin Kline), two stowaways onboard Cortez's ship to Mexico,. The duo are out to make themselves rich by swindling the local Aztecsa more humane plan, I guess, than that of Cortez, who merely slaughtered the local Indians to get their riches. Along the way the meet the requisite cute animals, a hot chick (Rosie Perez), and pretty much follow the plot line of 'The Man Who Would Be King,' albeit on a less tragic tangent. This isn't really a bad animated film, just a very average one. While colorful, the animation is unspectacular, as is the cast, who, in spite of their talents, add little to the proceedings,. And the songswell, Elton John may have done all right by The Lion King, but his work here is simply pop pap, utterly uninspired. Which pretty well describes the whole film.

Far closer to the mark as far as animated tales go is Warner Home Video's direct-to-video (DTV) continuation of the saga of The Dark Knight, Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker. Not much I can say here that Frank Garcia didn't already cover in his recent Fandom review of the film. It's a solid piece of work that should please fans and amuse others with its wonderfully eclectic mix of celebrity voices; including Terri Garr, Henry Rollins, and Mark Hamill, who is really outstanding as the voice of the Joker.

The twisted souls at Troma bring the more depraved amongst us a rather special holiday treat with Christmas Evil, featuring Brandon Maggart, who's probably best known as Professor Ogden Coles on and is actually Fiona Apple's father!. Maggart plays an assembly line worker in a toy factory who keeps a 'naughty and nice' list and punishes the naughty ones while dressed as Santa. This is a very low-budget, 1980 production, but Maggart brings something to the role, and the film often seems as if it has something deeper on its mind than just skewering a mythical character. This has been released on video before, under this title and also as You Better Watch Out and Terror In Toyland, but only on small, long discontinued labels, so its been out of print for some time. The DVD on this will include interviews with the director, Lewis Jackson, and star Maggart (you'll recognize him when you see him), which I'm looking forward to hearing. This one is clearly not for everyone, but might be a treat for those who can deal with something so far out of the mainstream.

While not specifically a holiday tale, the title of A-Pix Home Entertainment's Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman can't help but bring to mind the image of Frosty the Snowman and the jolly singing of Burl Ivesthough as I recall, that show didn't feature the icicle impalements and mutilations by snowball to be found in this feature. Yes, Jack Frost, the vicious serial killer, whose DNA was merged with that of a mound of frozen precipitation in a bizarre car accident several years ago, is back.

Now, if you're thinking to yourself, 'He can't be serious.' Well, yes I am. But thankfully, the filmmakers are not. The original Jack Frost was released in 1997, and in spite of a ridiculous premiseor perhaps because of itit went on to become a big DTV hit. A sequel was a virtual certainty. Thankfully, the producers decided to bring back much of the same cast, still playing it all very straight, and writer-director Michael Cooney. This isn't a laugh-a-minute spoof like Scary Movie , and some of the jokes fall flat, but there's more than enough here to amuse most monster movie fans. The proceedings are surprisingly gory, though in a campy sort of way, so I wouldn't suggest family viewing. The DVD also features some behind-the-scenes footage, a goofy interview with the director and a very enjoyable and informative commentary by him. I liked it.

Moving away from holiday themed fare, Tai Seng Video was scheduled to release Phantom Lover, the 1995 Hong Kong variation on The Phantom of the Opera, on a 2 disc, special edition DVD today, but the latest word from the company is that the disc will not be ready till later this month. The film is worth the wait. Director Ronny Yu delivers a treat nearly as visually resplendent as his classic The Bride With White Hair, though the emphasis here is on tragic romance rather than action or horror. The cast includes Leslie Cheung ( Chinese Ghost Story), and the DVD includes commentaries by Yu and by his cinematographer Peter Pau. There are also cast bios, pictures, 3 'making of' featurettes, and an isolated music score.

The week's releases are rounded out by two more entries in Image Entertainment's ongoing Twilight Zone releases. Volume 38 features three episodes, starting with; 'The Gift.' This tale of a stranded alien's encounters with primitive Mexican villagers, in particular a young boy, is typical of writer Rod Serling at this worst. Next is 'Young Man's Fancy,' penned by the wonderful Richard Matheson. While not wholly successful (Matheson blames it on casting), this is a pretty good tale of an obsessive love between mother and child, and vice versa. Lastly, 'The Incredible World of Horace Ford' is another tale of obsession with one's youth, as a toy designer revisits his past and realizes that nostalgia and time have sweetened the memories of his youth.

Volume 39 starts with 'Mr. Bevis,' starring Orson Bean (still an active actor today). This is a minor episode about an oddball whose existence is one calamity after another. A guardian angel gives him a chance at a more successful life, but only if he gives up his eccentricities. Next is 'The Silence,' a personal favorite about a man with a mile-minute-mouth who accepts a bet that he can't stay silent for a year. The ending of this one is classic Zone material. Last is 'On Thursday, We Leave For Home,' an above-average episode from the series only season as a one-hour show. This one deals with a group of space colonists stranded on a barren world and longing to return to earth. Only the will of their leader has kept them alive, but when rescue comes, he is ill prepared to meet it.

AWOL Titles

Most weeks, I find a few titles that have reached stores, even though they haven't been mentioned in video trade publications or distributor listings. This week surprises come from the First Rites label, which are featured exclusively in Hollywood Video stores. The label is a noble, though not often successful, attempt on the company's part to bring its customers the kind of 'indie' productions that are seldom seen outside of film festivals. In fact, they call the label a 'monthly film festival.' The problem is, there's a reason most of these films never find theatrical release. Since launching the label about a year ago, Hollywood Video and First Rites have increasingly chosen films that might have some exploitable hook and then packaged them to emphasize this, thus increasing rentals, they hope. Ever mindful of my position as a protector of Fandom visitors from bad cinema, I checked out several such titles, with the expected mixed results.

Best of the lot was Pep Squad. The box cover, which features the tag line 'someone's killing the school spirit' suggests a high school slasher story, but this is really a vicious and very dark black comedy, more in the tradition of Heathers but far more over-the-top. It's seldom a good sign when a main actor and the director share the same name, but Brooke Balderson, sister of director Steve Balderson, owns this film, stealing every scene she's in. I would guess this failed to find wider release when the Columbine massacre lessened the potential humor in the killing of high school students, but the film deserves to be seen.

Raven's Ridge also features box art that suggests a horror quotient, even making comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, but this is really a pretty slick robbery-gone-wrong story which segues into an effective backwoods terror tale featuring elements of The Most Dangerous Game and Southern Comfort.

Last amongst my sampling of First Rites titles was Shades of Darkness, the only one that was actually the horror film its box suggested. Bad acting, lame dialogue, a pretentious subtext, an overuse of CGI effects, and an irritating over-reliance on narration rather than showing us plot pointsall combine to weaken the entertainment value of this one just a bit.

News Items

*Several Hollywood studios are at work on systems that would cut out the middlemanvideo storesbetween them and consumers. Sony, Warner Brothers, Disney, Paramount and Fox are all involved in plans to allow would-be renters to download titles onto their home computers. The technology to do this in a reasonable length of time doesn't' yet exist, and consumers would need faster computers with larger memories, but with these entertainment conglomerates throwing millions at the problem, a solution will likely be found.

*Image Entertainment has announced that in February they will be releasing Die Screaming Marianne and Frightmare, two offerings from the man who put the word 'nasty' into Britain's 'Video Nasties,' Pete Walker. Walker's films are notable for their wholehearted embrace of torture, S&M, dark cynicism and less-than-happy endings. None of Walker's works are masterpieces, but all are well produced and acted, and they feature a consistent directorial vision that makes him something of an exploitation auteur. Long out-of-print in this country, these presumably uncut titles will be great to see again.

*Lion's Gate picked up U.S. rights to several likely DTV titles from Brian Yuzna's Spanish-based Fear Factory production company. The titles include Yuzna's own Faust, already completed and starring Jeffrey Combs and Andrew Divoff, and Beyond Re-Animator. Also picked up was Jack (The Hidden) Sholder's Arachnid (also completed) and Stuart Gordon's return to H.P. Lovecraft territory, Dagon. Spain, which hasn't been a horror haven since Paul Naschy's career faded, would seem to be on a rebound of terror. Dimension also picked up the thrillers Darkness and The Nameless, and Miramax is expected to soon release The Others, a terror tale starring Nicole Kidman.

Until Nex Time

That's it for another week. Next time, Jennifer Lopez takes on a journey to a scary place; Leatherface tells his side of the story; Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane returns from Dukes of Hazard hell; and Gwenyth Paltrow shows us all how used her head to become a success in show business. Meanwhile, please forgive me, but my eyes seem to be bothering me a bit. I'd guess it's the result of watching too many movies and getting too little sleep. So, I'd better give them a rest before it sparts to affeck myy tippeing skilz. Hape viwing 2 u all.

Next Week's titles

The Cell: Platinum Series - New Line Home Video
Dead Man - Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Death Mask - MTI Home Video
Demon Fighter Kocho - Media Blasters
Forgotten Silver: Special Edition - First Run Feature
Hunger: Bump In The Night - York Entertainment
Hunger: Smoke, Mirrors And Paranoia - York Entertainment
Hunger: Soul Snatcher - York Entertainment
Irresponsible Captain Tylor #1-4 - Right Stuf - 12/19/2000
Princess Mononoke - Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Se7en: 2-Disc Platinum Edition (DTS) - New Line Home Video
Stormswept - MTI Home Video
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait - MTI Home Video

[Unless otherwise noted, all titles are VHS/DVD releases.]

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