Pulp (1972)

About a decade ago I watched Get Carter (1971) with my uncle. I had never seen it and it was one of his favorites. I could see why. Michael Caine plays a great tough guy, it had memorable lines of dialogue, and great hard nosed action. Fast forward to today and I discovered that Caine made another film with director Mike Hodges (who also directed Flash Gordon) directly after Get Carter called Pulp (1972). Intrigued I popped the disc in to check it out.

Taking place in Malta, Michael Caine plays Mickey King, a hack pulp fiction writer specializing in cheap detective novels that feature violence and sex in equal measure. He’s approached by a grizzled older man smoking a cigar claiming that he has a job for Mickey. It seems that there’s a mysterious actor who lives nearby that wants Mickey to ghostwrite his autobiography. Why? Because the actor loves his work. Mickey agrees and is taken on a long trip to the actor’s villa. On the way Mickey finds the dead body of a man he suspected to be his contact for the actor. Troubled Mickey continues the trip until he’s contacted by the real contact for the actor. So why was the other man murdered? Was Mickey the real target? Shaken, Mickey meets with the actor, Preston (Mickey Rooney). Preston was indeed a major actor until his connections to the mafia were publicly released and he had to flee to live in isolation. Fearing for his life, Preston won’t leave his villa until he’s told Mickey everything that belongs in his book. From there more twists and turns occur and I won’t spoil it here but Mickey’s life imitates his art.

Pulp is an odd duck of a film. It’s a comedy but a dry one, filled with slight humor. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, this isn’t. But it wasn’t supposed to be. It’s very British and so the humor mostly comes from odd situations, places, and people, rather than big slapstick moments (though there are a few of those too, such as cars around Malta continuously crashing). The film is also a mystery but one that takes almost the entire runtime to finally begin and quickly end. It’s too silly to be a thriller, but too slight to be a pure comedy. I’ll be honest and say that at first I was bothered by this. It doesn’t conveniently fit into a prescribed genre. This means that if you measure it by genre standards, either comedy or thriller, it fails. But if you measure the film on it’s own terms and try to appreciate it for the anachronistic beast it is, it’s a good film. Caine is fantastic in it as are the other actors. I could see myself revisiting the film again later due to it’s odd voice and pacing as well as the great comic timing of Caine. My only complaint is that the color palette of the film is very brown. Brown cars, brown walls, brown suits, everything brown. It’s an odd complaint but what the heck, this is an odd movie.

As always with Arrow releases, the print looks and sounds fantastic. Given the films’ limited color palette it needs all the help it can get, visually speaking, and arrow has done another great job. The film has some nice supplements too, mainly interviews with cast members (no Caine though) and crew.

Essex Space Bin (2016)

I picked up Essex Space Bin without knowing much. I knew it was released by Troma, I knew it was British, and I knew it was very low budget. I also knew it looked odd. All of these things combined, I figured it could be a perfect Awful Awesome movie. Or it could be absolute garbage. But that’s the roll of the dice I take every time I’m on the hunt.

Essex Space Bin is about a middle-aged woman named Lorraine. She’s lonely and poor. She has a daughter that doesn’t like her and a mother that doesn’t like her. She believes that she’s on the cusp of discovering a secret portal to another dimension. As a child at the beach she met a man looking for the key to the portal and ever since then she’s been on the hunt too. She meets a mystic with a cheap website who claims he can gain her access to the other dimension but only if she pays him. Her daughter and her mother think she’s crazy and that the man is a charlatan. Undaunted, Lorraine continues to pursue her gateway to a different life. Will she find the portal? Will it be what she was hoping for?

Essex Space Bin is a real head scratcher. It looks like was shot on film, which is incredible. No one shooting low budget flicks shoots on film anymore, especially when they’re as bizarre as this flick is. Characters where super cheap wigs, scenes meander for several minutes and rarely coalesce into anything resembling a story. The film is a big rambling journey that feels beyond the grasp of the viewer. I felt like I was transported into a world without context, like joining a conversation half way through where the people being discusses are unknown to us. The characters speak about things as if we, the viewer, understand the context but there is no context. We’re just thrown into a bizarre world with little idea of what the hell is going on. I felt as if this was part of a longer series, that perhaps this was a public access or web show that was popular enough to create this feature.

Individual scenes do little to build upon each other and instead feel like individual ideas. This gives the film a very disjointed feel as things get progressively more strange as it goes along. There’s a clear passion behind the film. This was in no way thrown together to make a quick buck. It’s a film that uses it’s own language to tell a story that makes sense to the directors but rarely does so for the viewer. Given the right crowd and the right situation, this could be fun to watch but as a solo viewing, I had a hard time staying focused on the film.

Cops vs. Thugs (1975)

About a dozen years ago a friend of mine’s little brother gave me some Japanese movies on dvd to check out. Among the pile were the five films of the Yakuza Papers directed by Kinji Fukasaku. I watched all five films in quick succession and really enjoyed their gritty portrayal of yakuza life. Fast forward to today and I’ve finally watched another Fukasaku yakuza film, Cops. vs. Thugs thanks to Arrow Video.

Cops vs. Thugs is about various yakuza families and their lives within the underworld. We meet our “hero,” a cop who regularly associates and befriends the yakuza. He’s heavily involved in their goings on but through his guidance and the help of other similarly associated cops, the yakuza families don’t war with each other. They quietly break the law, running their various schemes. That is until violence erupts once more and a new boss is sent in to clean up the mess. He knows nothing about the yakuza world and only makes matters worse. The violence reaches a fever pitch and it’s up to our hero to help diffuse the situation and try to calm down the clans once again.

Cops vs. Thugs is a film that requires full attention. I knew this from previously watching the Yakuza Papers films. Cops vs. Thugs moves fast and features several characters whose position isn’t always clear. That full attention pays off though by providing a complex portrayal of the world of the yakuza and the police who try to keep the peace to protect the citizens. The cops aren’t totally clean either, in fact, most are pretty damn dirty. They have to partially live the life of the yakuza which means some moral compromises along the way. Think Goodfellas but without the cops having to be undercover. The film is gritty and real with energetic camera work and a great score. Despite the fact that there isn’t much action in the film (this is a crime film, not a martial arts flick), it still has a breathless vibe to it. The runtime blew past and the whole film had me captivated.

If you enjoy yakuza films, mafia flicks, or gritty 70’s cinema, I recommend Cops vs. Thugs. It has a big reputations for being one of the best examples of the genre and I have to agree: it’s a great flick.

The blu, as always with Arrow Video, looks fantastic. The print is crisp and clean without any damage. The special features include a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, a new visual essay on cops & criminals in Fukasaku’s works by film scholar Tom Mes and a booklet with liner notes.

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J.D.’s Revenge (1976)

Close to 10 years ago, when Netflix streaming was still new, I was able to watch a bunch of “blaxploitation” films on the service. I watched classics like Bucktown, Coffy, Friday Foster, Black Caesar, and more, including JD’s Revenge. It was a fun time in streaming history and I watched all that I could. Much like the superior Across 101st Street, JD’s Revenge doesn’t really fit in with what one typically categorizes as “blaxploitation.”

Taking place in New Olreans, J.D.’s Revenge begins in the 1940’s. We meet JD Walker, a street walking tough guy who witnesses the murder of his sister in a meat locker. Her through is slashed by another man and JD rushes to her in shock, covering his hands with blood. In walks Elijah who assumes JD is the murderer. The real murderer shoots JD, protecting his secret. Fast forward to 1976 and we meet Ike. He’s a hard working man going through law school and driving a cab. One night, he and his girlfriend and some other friends take a night on the town. They stop at a club and Ike participates in a stage show involving hypnotism. He awakens to find his head splitting and flashes of memories that don’t belong to him. As the film progresses Ike begins to be taken over by the spirit of JD who is out for revenge against the men involved in his sister’s death, and his own. This of course turns Ike’s life upside down because JD is one bad dude.

When many people think of blaxploitation they think of a macho story line involving lots of action, shooting, racism, a funky soundtrack, and lots of cursing. JD’s Revenge doesn’t have those things. It’s a genuinely well acted, well filmed, drama/horror about a man losing himself to a very negative spirit. There’s an earnestness about the story that is rarely seen in your typical exploitation fare. One key element in traditional blaxploitation is that if the main character’s race were to be changed, the whole film would cease to make sense. In this case the story could have been played by any actor from any race, it just happens to be a predominately African American cast. This helps to keep the film from turning into a racist cartoon. The characters all feel real and not just dick swinging macho guys. It’s a shame that this film gets lumped in with films like The Mack and Super Fly. Those films are a lot of fun but they lack the honest emotional core that JD’s Revenge has. It’s a film worth seeking out for horror fans looking for something less over-the-top. It’s a well told ghost story that happens to star African American actors.

The film has never looked better. Again, Arrow has released a film in the best possible quality. The picture is perfect as is the sound. The Blu features a 46 minute documentary about the making of the film with interviews with the cast and crew, additional interview supplements, and a trailer reel for the director. It’s great to hear the stories behind films like this that have been traditionally ignored.

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Red Christmas (2017)

There was a time when I was a champion for Artsploitation Films. They had a roster of strong independent and foreign films from new or unfamiliar directors. They released fantastic films and took big risks. I loved them for gambling on unknown foreign directors making films that fit into a world that wasn’t quite art house but wasn’t quite genre film either, hence the title artsploitation. They grabbed up the films likely to be ignored by genre labels and art labels. Lately however their film selection has been, for me, uneven. They still release great flicks but also some far less successful films in terms of artistic quality. Instead of readily watching anything they put out, I’ve had to be more selective. It was with this reservation that I popped in Australian film, Red Christmas, starring Dee Wallace.

Red Christmas begins with an abortion clinic. We hear audio clips of pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates while a man carrying a briefcase and a cross walks into the clinic and sets off a bomb hidden in the briefcase. During the chaos the man discovers an aborted baby, still alive in a bucket in the corner. He takes the baby and flees the scene. Fast forward to 20 years later and we meet an Aussie family gathering together to celebrate Christmas. The matriarch of the family is played by Dee Wallace and her husband has passed away. She has three daughters, one pregnant, one incapable of giving birth (who is married to a priest of some kind), and her younger daughter. She also has a son Jerry who has Downs Syndrome. Also included is a crusty older man who I assume was the brother of the deceased husband. Gathering together under one roof they spend the first 45 minutes of the film bickering and being unbelievably unkind to each other. Then a mysterious man arrives covered in wrappings like the mummy and wearing a big black cloak. He tells the family he’s there to read a letter to them. The contents of the letter infuriate the family and they kick him out. Then the killing begins.

I’ll be upfront about Red Christmas: I didn’t like it. One reason being the acidic portrayal of the family. They were so cruel to each other I found it hard to believe that they would willingly associate with each other for any reason whatsoever. Even if people like this exist, why would I want to spend 81 minutes with them? There was no warmth, no understanding, no familial bond. Just anger, selfishness, and unrelenting verbal assaults. By the time the action started I honestly didn’t care at all what happened to the characters. This is a familiar trope in horror films and one that never fails to cause me to dislike them. It undercuts the impact of the violence and makes the film difficult to get through. At best, as an audience member, i can enjoy watching these awful people being dispatched, at worst, I don’t have any investment of any kind. Such is the case here. I also feel that abortion is a topic that, for me, isn’t suited to gory slasher film. It’s too serious of a subject to be handled as nothing more that a catalyst in a low budget slasher flick. I’m not saying the subject can’t/shouldn’t be explored in cinema but for me it needs to be handled with far greater care than is the case in Red Christmas. I’ll be frank and admit I almost turned the film off within the first few minutes because of it.

Now onto the good. The film is well shot using good quality video equipment. There is some great monochromatic lighting on the back end of the film that gives it some style similar to Creepshow. The gore is well done, and not over done. The acting is solid, especially from veteran Dee Wallace and thankfully it’s very short.

These strong suits however, for me, do not overcome the poorly written characters, unrealistic motivations, the handling of abortion in the film, and the general lack of humanity exhibited in the film. It’s an ugly film, populated with ugly characters doing ugly things.

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The Crazies (1973)

 

Growing up renting videos from my local mom & pop I stumbled across The Crazies on big box vhs. It had a killer cover and proclaimed that it was from the director of Night of the Living Dead (which I hadn’t seen yet) so I rented it. I honestly didn’t remember much about that viewing other than being kinda bored. Later I watched Dawn of the Dead and was totally floored. At one point I went through George Romero’s filmography, or at least as much of it as I could get my hands on. That being said, I haven’t given The Crazies another shot until this viewing on Blu courtesy of Arrow Video. I was curious to see if my (very) young opinion still held true or if in the intervening years of avoiding the flick, I had missed out.

The Crazies was released after Season of the Witch but before his cult gem Martin (which preceded his opus, Dawn of the Dead). It takes place in a small rural town. The film begins with two children waking up to find their father smashing their house with a crowbar. They run to wake up their mom but find her dead. The father then lights the house on fire. Local volunteer firefighters show up and discover the police already there and the father sitting in the back of a squad car, screaming. It isn’t long before the military arrives and takes over the town. An experimental bioweapon that causes the infected to behave uncontrollably violent was released accidentally near the town and the military has come to quarantine the area. It isn’t long before people are herded into the local high school to be held under lock and key. Everyone is a potential disease carrier and no one trusts anyone. The military guys are decked out in hazmat outfits but are also succeptible to the contagion. Soon the town erupts into chaos. Our protagonists of the story are volunteer firefighters trying to sneak out of town to avoid infection and arrest by the military.

I really enjoyed the paranoid tone of The Crazies. The film was made at a time when public opinion of the military and government in general had shifted from mindless adoration to genuine skepticism and fear. The Crazies captures that fear, personified in the anonymous hazmat wearing military goons. As with his best films, the societal commentary is thick, whether it was intentional or not. The violence foreshadows the graphic special effects that would be utilized in Dawn. We see big bloody bullet wounds, stabbings, and beatings. The acting is stilted but passable. Romero’s films were rarely known for their stellar acting so The Crazies is par for the course. The trouble with the film is the pacing. The film starts off with a bang and creates genuine suspense but then gets bogged down with Romero’s commentary on the slow moving wheels of bureaucracy. This theme of useless red tape is repeated throughout the film but frankly, the point is driven home too often. It kills the pacing of the film. Our protagonists also stop at various times during the film to hide or rest and these moments also slow the film down considerably. The result is a film that has bursts of energy, action, and tension, and lulls of dialogue. Now, I’m not adverse to a talky film if that is the intended style. All films don’t have to be explosions and action the entire time, but this film could have benefited from some trimming to keep things moving along.

The film looks fantastic however. Again Arrow has done a great job restoring and presenting the film. The colors are rich, the sound clear, and not a speck of dirt to be seen. The blu also comes with a bevvy of special features including a couple of interviews with Lynn Lowry, behind the scenes footage, commentary and more.

While not his most accomplished film, The Crazies is worth checking out. The film’s social commentary is as sharp as in any of Romero’s films, and the story is unique for the time. The pacing may be lax and the direction workmanlike, but the ideas are insightful and still relevant today.

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The Climber (1975)

I’ll fully admit that I’m not nearly as well versed with eurocrime flicks as I’d like to be. The italian poliziotteschi films were known for their gritty realism, violence, and great soundtracks. For some reason that isn’t fully clear to me, they are largely under represented on North American releases. We got a boat load of spaghetti westerns, gialli, cannibal films, zombie films, post apocalypic trash, and other genre films during the vhs boom of the 80’s but the eurocrime film was left out in the cold. Arrow Video has tried to remedy this problem by releasing The Climber (1975) on a beautifully presented blu ray. I was unfamiliar with the film but was in the mood for some gritty action so i popped the disc in.

The Climber is about a New York native Aldo (Joe Dallesandro) who has been working in Italy as an underling in a crime syndicate. He’s handsome, ambitious, and capable, he’s also disliked by his boss. When his boss roughs him up for disobeying the rules, he leaves Napoli and heads to Rome where he begins his own crime syndicate, starting with hassling restaurants for protection money. What follows is the rise and downfall of an ambitious crook living in violent world.

Taking a page from films like Scarface (’32) and Black Cesar (1973), The Climber presents an ugly world filled with violence, murder, extortion, fear, and near constant peril. The film features a “rough around the edges” approach that helps instill a sense of immediacy, energy, and animal fear. A polished film would be beautiful to look at but the “in the trenches” vibe of the film helps to immerse the viewer into the rough and tumble world that the characters inhabit. It feels very proto-punk to me with an attitude of youth and rebellion. The world represented in the world is ugly and the film mimics the world aesthetically through shaky camera moves, wild camera angles, and an in the moment feeling that helps to propel it to it’s final violent conclusion. The music in this film is also wonderful. Nearly every song or piece of score feels like macho ass-kicking music meant to instill a sense of invulnerability felt by the film’s protagonist. Our “hero” isn’t a man worth admiring and yet he’s compelling all the same.

The blu looks fantastic. Arrow once again have delivered a beautifully restored print for us to enjoy without any issues whatsoever. The film, i’m sure, has never looked better. Included on the blu are the Italian and English voice tracks, an interview with Joe Dallesandro, and a booklet with liner notes by Roberto Curti. Also included is a dvd of the film.

I really enjoyed The Climber. I went in with no expectations and was rewarded with a film that hit many of the eurocrime staples (violence, motorcycles, macho men, and a bombastic soundtrack). If you are a eurocrime fan, this one is a must buy. If you haven’t dipped your toes into the pool, it’s a solid film to start with.

 

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Fist 2 Fist (2011)


Growing up as kid in the 90’s, I devoured action movies by the fist full. I was always searching for that magical action flick that would deliver everything I craved: mostly lots of fighting. I fell in love with the top tier films as most boys did but I also enjoyed the lower budgeted films too. The mid 90’s gave rise to the indie flick and suddenly the muscular macho movies were out. Thankfully in the last 10 years or so there’s been a growing industry of macho movies being pumped out direct to video just like in the glory days of the 90s. Sure, most of these films are made for a fraction of their predecessors but the spirit of the films remain. The trouble is the genre is a minefield. For every great DTV action flick that comes out, there are many that commit the biggest sin in cinema: they’re boring. It was with this hesitant curiosity that I popped in Fist 2 Fist.

The film stars Jino Kang (who also wrote, directed, and produced the film) as Ken, a man with a criminal past trying to make good. He’s married now and runs a center for troubled youth. He also teaches hapkido to young people. A villain from his past is released from prison forcing Ken to again enter the criminal world and use violence to save his wife and protect the life he’s built for himself.

I’ll admit I didn’t have high expectations for this flick. I figured it would be dull and lifeless with little action and a whole lot of talking. Thankfully that isn’t the case. The film starts with a bang and has plenty of action sprinkled throughout it’s run time. Jino is a competent director and a solid action star. I liked his relaxed and warm personality in the film. He doesn’t come off as an actor trying to ape someone else’s style which I appreciate. He has his own vibe and I liked it. The film is low budget, there’s no avoiding that but he seems to use what he has well. This is only the second film Jino made but it feels like he has more experience than that. I will say that the run time, despite being only 92 minutes, feels a little long. Some selective trimming could have helped move the film along but it wasn’t until 70 minutes in that I started to feel the run time. The acting is solid for the most part and the direction feels confident. Overall Fist 2 Fist is a solid effort that shows a lot of potential for Jino.

I would recommend this flick to direct to video action hounds only though. For those with just a casual interest the film is too rough around the edges with some scripting issues related to the pacing of the film. That being said I really liked Jino’s presence in the film and I hope to see more of him in future.

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It Came From the Video Aisle (2017)

I remember when I was a kid I caught Puppetmaster on Tv on a Saturday afternoon while my mom took a nap. I had to keep it quiet so it didn’t wake her up and so I huddled close to the TV and had the crap scared out of me. It was such a unique movie. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it and after that I always tried to catch the plethora of sequels when they played on TV. I also remember combing the aisles of my local video stores and finding Full Moon movies with great covers. I couldn’t rent them because of those great covers, but I liked to look. Later I discovered the very gory Doll Man, Demonic Toys, and Trancers. Full Moon kept pumping out movies but I have to admit I was never a huge fan of their releases. Most of the time they were dull flicks without enough action that never lived up to the poster art. Some however are actually a lot of fun (Seedpeople, Shadowzone, and the aforementioned Puppet Master flicks). I’m fairly well versed with their movies and I know a little bit about Empire, the studio that predated Full Moon but honestly I was pretty ignorant. That is until I read It Came from the Video Aisle.

It Came From the Video Aisle, written by David Jay, William Wilson, and Dewi Torsten, is a tome dedicated to the disreputable films of Full Moon. The book begins after the demise of Empire, so early on I must admit I was a bit confused. The book assumes that the reader already knows the story of Empire and while I know a little, I don’t know as much as this book thinks I do. Moving past those very early days the book is no longer confusing and paints a highly detailed picture of what it was like (and is still like) at Full Moon. We get tons of interviews from directors, actors, special effects people, cinematographers, writers, you name it. This information, gathered straight from those that were actually there, is very detailed and sprinkled with great anecdotes. No stone is left unturned as the book laboriously goes through each film (and even some films that were never produced). We learn where it was filmed, who wrote it, what it was like to shoot the film, what Charles Band’s thoughts and reactions were and more. Like I said, this is a very well researched and detailed book about the longstanding independent schlock studio.

My only gripe with the book is that some of the information is “inside baseball.” There were references that I didn’t understand and acronyms that weren’t spelled out, but otherwise this is a fantastic book, a clear labor of love. If you are a fan of the studio then this is a must own book. You won’t find another book that will ever go into such detail, with so many great candid interviews and behind the scenes photos. I had fun reading this book and it has rekindled my interest in the studio and those early films that are so much fun.

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Down (2001)

Recently I covered the Dutch horror flick, The Lift about a killer elevator. The film was made in 1983 and in 2001 director Dick Maas had the opportunity to remake his hit in the U.S. with a bigger budget, set in New York. Why have you never heard of this flick before? Well, it premiered right before 9/11 in Holland and was quickly pulled from theaters there. Here in the states the movie was shelved for a few years and then unceremoniously dumped onto dvd.  The idea of a killer elevator in New York in a high rise building was a little too hard to swallow directly after 9/11. Add to that mention of terrorism and even Bin Laden himself and the movie never had a chance. Now 16 years later the movie is finally being given a respectable release from Blue Underground complete with lots of special features and a crisp blu transfer. But what about the movie?

The evil elevator in this film is inside the fictitious Millennium building sporting 73 elevators and nearly 100 floors. When an elevator full of pregnant women get stuck inside and nearly suffocate, representatives Meteor elevators (the company that invited the electronic hardware and software that controls the elevators, are called in to investigate. Nothing is found but one of the repairmen can’t believe that nothing was wrong. Later when people start dying in bizarre ways related to the elevator he begins to investigate the company he works for with the help of a plucky journalist (Naomi Watts). Together they uncover a nefarious plot involving a mad scientist (Michael Ironside), a corrupt company exec (Ron Pearlman), and a whole lot of people dying.

While similar to The Lift, Down feels like it’s own film. It is a unique riff on the concept of a killer elevator that keeps some of the plot points found in The Lift but maintains it’s own identity. It’s a remake but not slavishly so. And since it’s by the same writer/director as the original it feels like a opportunity to play around with variations on the theme that had been percolating in the intervening years between this and the original. Gone is the languid pace and melodrama found in the first film. This film does not have it’s feet on the floor: it’s far more schlocky. The pace is faster and there are more “accidents,” in the movie, one of which i thought was going to be a dream sequence for one of the characters because it was so strange and over the top. Nope. It was real in the context of the movie. There are elements to this movie that feel very 90’s, like the fashion, characters, and tone and seeing them made me feel nostalgic for that era. But the movie doesn’t always work. There are pages of dialogue that are clunky and odd which give it a so-bad-it’s-good vibe in places. The plot is very over the top, not in terms of gore (though there is some) but in terms of audaciousness. When your main character is trying to use a bazooka by the end of the movie, you may have gone farther than your audience is willing to accept. For me, the more outrageous the film got, the more I enjoyed it.

In the end Down is a mixed bag of a film. It’s overly long (111 minutes!) but well acted, it’s cheesy but fun, it’s familiar and yet feels very foreign. It’s obvious this was made by a non-American and that mirror of our culture through the eyes of someone outside of it makes the film feel very alien. It’s that feeling that makes the movie fun to watch, that and the ridiculous ways in which characters are dispatched. While not a slam dunk, it’s a fun head scratcher of a movie that takes itself  less seriously than the original film. Which one is better? Well, The Lift is probably the better film overall but Down is more fun so I’ll be more likely to revisit it in the future.

The set comes with a dvd copy as well for those of you who haven’t made the jump to Blu, extensive behind the scenes footage (nearly 2.5 hours!), commentary, a making-of featurette, and liner notes by Michael Gingold

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