7/12/05 Edition

Horror Sequel Mania!

Plus: FREAKED, MAX DUGAN RETURNS, and More From Anchor Bay!

A couple of years ago Dimension released the first of two made-for-video sequels to “Dracula 2000,” a competent but forgettable Wes Craven production that set the ages-old kingpin of the undead in a contemporary setting.

The resulting follow-up, “Dracula II: Ascension,” was in many ways a superior film to its predecessor: packed with action and a fun, B-movie tone, “Ascension” followed the adventures of Father Uffizi (Jason Scott Lee) and his sidekick, ex-med student Luke (Jason London), as they teamed up to defeat Dracula and try to save Luke’s beloved (Diane Neal) from eternal damnation.

The movie, and Lee’s character, have since gained somewhat of a cult following, one that will undoubtedly flock to either their favorite local haunt (or their online rental queue) to pick up the long-delayed DRACULA III: LEGACY (**, 90 mins., 2003, R), which finally arrives this week on DVD.

Picking up from the end of “Ascension,” here Father Uffizi and Luke travel into the Romanian countryside where warring revolutionaries do battle for not only the good of the country but also the fate of mankind. The duo run into a British TV reporter (Alexandra Wescourt) covering the war, which only provides a superficial cover for the nefarious dealings of Dracula (a wasted Rutger Hauer), who’s bringing in lambs for the slaughter from the outer villages of Romania since the local “food supply” has been exhausted.

Patrick Lussier and Joel Soisson again co-wrote, produced and directed this third (and possibly not final) entry in their modern “Dracula” series, which coasts for a while on the solid performances of Lee and London. The duo have a surprisingly amiable chemistry together, and for a while, the change of setting and competent, B-movie thrills make “Legacy” the best of all three films.

Alas, the movie all but collapses during what ought to be its most effective part: the last half-hour, in which our heroes finally meet Dracula in a climactic showdown. In just as disappointing a performance as his minor role in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” Hauer gets almost nothing to do as the now-aged Count, while Diane Neal is likewise wasted in what basically amounts to a cameo reprisal of her role from “Ascension.” What’s worse, the filmmakers do a late turnaround with the Uffizi character, culminating in an a borderline farce of a conclusion that basically stabs all of the series’ fans in the back. Without giving it all away, let’s just say the conclusion is poorly developed and sure to create frustration from many genre fans.

Perhaps it’s the result of raised expectations (and two years since “Dracula II” was released), but “Dracula III: Ascension” simply doesn’t follow through on the promise afforded by its predecessor. As direct-to-video sequels go, Lussier and Soisson’s production is still several notches above the norm, with fine work provided by the two leads and superior production values, but the conclusion is such a letdown that you simply can’t help but feel disappointment that the opportunity to create a mini “franchise” with its lead characters wasn’t completely thrown away here (and if it wasn’t, they’re going to have to do a heck of a lot to bury themselves out of the hole they dug themselves in).

Dimension/Miramax’s DVD, out this week, sports a brief alternate ending that at least would have been preferable to the finale that was utilized in the final cut. One deleted scene, an informative commentary track with Lussier and Soisson, cast auditions, story treatment excerpts from both “Legacy” and “Ascension,” trailers, and interviews with both Lussier and make-up Gary J. Tunnicliffe comprise a solid assortment of special features. The 2.35 transfer is just fine (nicely representing Doug Milsome’s cinematography), as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting a score credited to Ceiri Torjussen and Kevin Kliesch (with Marco Beltrami’s “Dracula 2000" themes again receiving major billing alongside the composers).

Despite the relative disappointment of “Dracula III,” it’s nothing compared to the crass, inexplicable awfulness of THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER (No Stars, 99 mins., R, 2004; Dimension).

It’d be one thing if this direct-to-video (though at one point intended for theaters) production simply continued the downward spiral of the “Crow” franchise since it began with the superb 1994 original from director Alex Proyas.

But no, “The Crow: Wicked Prayer” is an almost-unspeakable disaster that starts off with a bizarre opening sequence announcing (literally) the names, occupations, and motivations of its villains: a group of satanists, including a slumming David Boreanaz -- whose post-“Angel” work is heading rapidly towards the gutter based on this performance -- and Tara Reid, whose career is already there.

These bad guys, intoxicated by the waste left over from a Native American mine (soon to be turned into a casino!), want revenge on the local townsfolk, including “white trash” Edward Furlong and his native “pure blood” girlfriend, Emmanuelle Chriqui. The duo torture poor Furlong (a former con who did time with Boreanaz) and gouge out Chriqui’s eyes (always a nice touch), but soon Eddie -- who actually looks freakier out of his Crow make-up than he does in it -- is reborn from beyond as The Crow, quipping godawful one-liners and exacting revenge on the evil-doers. Also among the latter are Dennis Hopper, who shows up speaking urban-rapper slang (“what’s up, homey?”) in what has to be one of the worst roles of his career (and that says something), and singer Macy Gray, who seems to be reading off a cue-card like she was on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Relentlessly unpleasant, excessively violent, hilariously written and poorly acted across the board, “The Crow: Wicked Prayer” is an embarrassment that nearly turns the first sequel in this series -- the hideous “Crow: City of Angels” -- into a misunderstood epic by comparison. It’s easy to comprehend why Furlong and Reid’s careers are where they’re at based on this film, but Boreanaz is capable of far better and his decision to make this turkey seems incredibly ill-advised.

Dimension’s DVD, out next week, offers deleted scenes, storyboards, a pair of commentary tracks, several Making Of featurettes, plus a 1.85 transfer and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The latter offers a non-stop score by Jamie Christopherson that might have been more effective in another film, and there’s also a brief featurette with Christopherson touring his recording confines, with a cameo appearance provided by his wife. One wishes you could have spent 99 minutes with the two of them instead of watching “The Crow: Wicked Prayer” itself.

New From Anchor Bay

Back in 1993 Twentieth Century Fox released Alex Winter and Tom Stern’s manic comedy “Freaked” in a grand total of two theaters -- where it did little business and quickly went straight to video and laserdisc.

I recall renting the laserdisc (even though it was full-screen) and immediately loving every moment of “Freaked,” something that says a good deal about its appeal since I was just starting college at the time and that “campus demographic” had to have been what the movie was aiming for -- provided Fox had given it half a chance to succeed.

Although it’s taken years for the movie to materialize on DVD, the wait has been worth it as Anchor Bay -- thanks to their new relationship with Fox -- this week unveils a feature-packed 2-disc Special Edition of FREAKED (***, 80 mins., PG-13) in all its crazed glory. Chances are that most viewers have never heard of this relatively obscure effort from Alex Winter, the former “Bill & Ted” star, but don’t let that stand in the way of you checking out this entertaining and occasionally hysterical comedy.

Winter stars as a former child star who becomes transformed into a mutant after agreeing to become a spokesman for a banned chemical company (good idea, of course!). Soon Winter and his fellow freaks -- including Mr. T as a bearded lady -- attempt to rise up and regain their humanity from sideshow promoter Randy Quaid.

Filled with sight gags, hit-or-miss jokes and a memorable cameo from Keanu Reeves, “Freaked” is every bit a crazy comedy, and a surprisingly effective one at that. The film reportedly cost upwards of $10-$15 million, something that can be seen in the picture’s elaborate make-up and visual effects, despite the fact that the final cut clocks in at barely 80 minutes. Still, it’s possible that any more of “Freaked” would have overstayed its welcome, making it a perfectly short-but-sweet “undiscovered” gem that now stands a strong chance of finding the audience it deserves on DVD.

And what a terrific DVD Anchor Bay has put together here: Winter and Stern contribute a frequently hilarious commentary track, while deleted scenes (unfortunately ripped right from the Region 2 PAL DVD) compliment the movie’s solid 1.85 transfer (with remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital sound to boot). Most of the extras can be found on Disc 2, where you’ll find a “read-through” rehearsal of the film sporting additional scenes and dialogue that didn’t make the final cut and multiple featurettes sporting copious, behind-the-scenes camcorder footage. An interview with writer Tim Burns, a “Freaked Art Gallery,” and the original trailer round out the extras (can’t imagine it played in front of too many films).

“Freaked” is an inspired goof that -- if one has to draw a comparison -- is at least superior to the sorts of farces that Jim Abrahams was turning out in the early ‘90s (like “Mafia” or “Hot Shots”). If you like the kinds of rapid-fire gags from those films, and want to check out one of the more underrated comedies from the decade, don’t miss it!

Anchor Bay has also dusted off several films from the Fox vaults and -- even if they don’t include any major supplements -- has at least given them similarly satisfying presentations on DVD.

Chris Columbus stepped out from writing “Home Alone” and returned to the director’s chair with his pleasant, underrated comedy-drama ONLY THE LONELY (***, 1991, 105 mins., PG-13), a film that sports one of the late John Candy’s finest performances.

Though produced by John Hughes and set in the filmmaker’s native Chicago, “Only The Lonely” is Columbus’ film all the way, with Candy starring as a Chicago cop with an overbearing mom (Maureen O’Hara) and an overactive best friend (Jim Belushi) who attempts to get him back into the dating game. Into Candy’s lonely existence comes Ally Sheedy as a shy woman who works in a funeral home, and sparks inevitably fly -- though O’Hara firmly stands in the way of their path to happiness.

Candy was seldom more appealing than he was in this film, and O’Hara is equally winning in a part that marked her first screen appearance in two decades. Complimenting them is a stellar supporting cast including Sheedy, a superb Anthony Quinn, Kevin Dunn, and Macaulay Culkin in a cameo. “Only The Lonely” was filmed with a crew comprised of numerous “Home Alone” veterans, including editor Raja Gosnell, cinematographer Julio Macat, and production designer John Muto, and the movie has the same similar, warm look and feel of the Hughes’ blockbuster, but this time with adult characters and situations you can readily identify with.

Anchor Bay’s DVD offers a good-looking 1.85 widescreen transfer with an acceptable 2.0 Dolby Surround track, sporting an excellent score by Maurice Jarre. Extras are limited to a standard promotional featurette, the original trailer and a TV spot.

Neil Simon’s MAX DUGAN RETURNS (***, 98 mins., 1983, PG) likewise offered a feel-good relationship drama, with Marsha Mason as a single mom whose long-lost father (Jason Robards) returns to get to know his grandson (Matthew Broderick) before he passes away.

Following their successful collaboration on “The Goodbye Girl,” director Herbert Ross reunited with Simon for this engaging, good-natured film, filled with excellent performances, intermittent laughs and moving moments. Mason, Robards and Donald Sutherland (as a cop Mason becomes involved with) comprise the solid ensemble, while Matthew Broderick and Kiefer Sutherland acquit themselves well, each in their screen debuts.

Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a somewhat soft but satisfying 1.85 widescreen transfer with mono sound and the theatrical trailer. David Shire’s quiet but effective score is yet another asset to the film.

Goofier but nearly just as much fun is on-hand in Fox’s silly 1985 comedy MOVING VIOLATIONS (**½, 90 mins., PG-13).

This ridiculous, uneven but fun blast of ‘80s nostalgia wasn’t just inspired by the success of “Police Academy”: that film’s writers, Neal Isreal and Pat Proft, reunited for “Moving Volations,” with Israel himself directing, following his success on “Bachelor Party” the previous year.

Starring as a sarcastic wiseacre who has to attend driving school along with a motley assortment of crazies, John Murray attempted to parlay older brother Bill’s success into a career in features. While it obviously didn’t last long (this box-office underachiever was pretty much it for him), Murray does a decent job of imitating his brother in “Moving Violations,” which also stars a rail-thin Jennifer Tilly as his love interest, Brian Backer in a virtual reprise of his “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” role, Fred Willard, Sally Kellerman, a young Don Cheadle, and even Clara Peller, best known as Wendy’s “Where’s The Beef?” spokeswoman.

Ralph Burns’ typically wacky score and the movie’s mix of PG-13 sex jokes and sight gags firmly stamp “Moving Violations” as a product of its era, but it’s nevertheless entertaining enough and fans of the film ought to love Anchor Bay’s DVD. Israel contributes an amusing audio commentary while the 1.85 widescreen transfer and 5.1/2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both satisfying. The theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.

Another film that’s developed a minor cult following its initially disastrous box-office run -- TURK 182 (**, 97 mins., 1985, PG-13) -- has also arrived on DVD from Anchor Bay.

Bob Clark’s fairly pretentious, unbelievable fairy tale centers on a brash young New Yorker (Timothy Hutton) who rallies his fellow citizens into a fervor after the city denies his injured firefighter brother (Robert Urich) a pension. Kim Cattrall essays the idealistic social worker assigned to Urich’s case, while Robert Culp is the city’s obnoxious mayor, Darren McGavin a somewhat sympathetic detective, and Peter Boyle essays Culp’s resident thug.

Shot in scope, “Turk 182" has finally been restored to its original Panavision aspect ratio in Anchor Bay’s DVD. The 2.35 transfer looks great, making Reginald Morris’ cinematography -- and the movie itself -- presentable for the first time on video in any format. Clark places actors on all sides of the frame, and much like his later comedy “Loose Cannons,” requires the full anamorphic ratio to comprehend what’s going on (if you watch the full-screen TV print, the panning-and-scanning resembles a ping-pong game).

Alas, the movie itself is pretty tough to like: Hutton’s unappealing performance borders on grating, while Paul Zaza’s bombastic score doesn’t do the movie any favors. More over, the script (credited to James Gregory Kingston, Denis and John Hamill) simply doesn’t ring true, with both the clean-cut “good guys” and the smarmy, corrupt politicians coming across as heavy stereotypes that feel as if they exist in the Twilight Zone...or at least a dated ‘80s “feel good” film.

Anchor Bay’s DVD does include a commentary with Clark and the original trailer to compliment its 16:9 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

Lastly, AB has unearthed the almost entirely-forgotten 1981 mystery suspense-thriller EYEWITNESS (**, 102 mins., PG), starring William Hurt as a janitor who attempts to court his favorite TV reporter (Sigourney Weaver) by making up information about a murder in the building where he works.

Writer Steve Tesich and director Peter Yates tried to recapture the magic from their winning 1979 film “Breaking Away” with “Eyewitness,” a very different kind of film with solid performances from Hurt, Weaver, Christopher Plummer (as Weaver’s fiancee), James Woods, Pamela Reed, and Morgan Freeman in one of his earlier screen roles. Despite the strong work turned in by the cast (playing characters who are, for a change, actually developed), “Eyewitness” is a plodding genre piece with a plot that simply feels too convenient once all its cards are laid on the table.

AB’s DVD presentation offers a somewhat grimy 1.85 transfer (likely due to how the movie was shot) and a commentary track with Yates and moderator Marcus Hearn. Stanley Silverman, apparently a Broadway orchestrator, provides a satisfying, low-key score (one of only three Silverman is credited with), with the great conductor Charles Gerhardt credited with its supervision.

Buena Vista Round-Up

VINTAGE MICKEY (65 mins., 2005 Compilation, Disney): For those viewers not interested in Disney’s limited-edition DVD “Treasures” tins, “Vintage Mickey” offers nine shorts compiling some of the earliest appearances of Mickey Mouse, including “Steamboat Willie” (Mickey’s first-ever short), “Plane Crazy,” “The Karnival Kid,” “The Birthday Party,” “The Castaway,” “Mickey’s Orphans,” “Mickey’s Revue,” “Building A Building,” and “Mickey’s Steam-Roller.” The full-screen transfers and soundtracks are right on-par with the Treasures packages.

THE BEST OF THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB (1957-64, 113 mins.)
MICKEY MOUSE CLUB: THE BEST OF BRITNEY, JUSTIN & CHRISTINA (88 mins.): If you need any examples of how much has changed over time in terms of cultural entertainment, check out Disney’s two “Mickey Mouse Club” DVD compilations. The original MMC sports five episodes from the heady days of the series, including a young Annette Funicello, cartoons, Hardy Boys mysteries, and plenty of musical performances. The more-modern “MMC” show sports vintage footage of later-music stars Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera, who come off, if nothing else, as polished child stars thrust into the limelight (also be on the lookout for later “Felicity” star Keri Russell as another member of the cast). The difference in what happened to these Mickey Mouse Club alumni after they left Disney tells you all you need to know about today’s society: Annette parlayed her success into a series of harmless “Beach Party” films throughout the duration of the ‘60s, while Britney and Christina have since turned into sleazy, media-soaked “superstars” more notable for their tabloid escapades and classless attire than any tangible “talent.” My, how times have changed (sigh).  Disney’s DVDs are low-cost (around $10 in post outlets) and look just fine.

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (*½, 2005, 116 mins., PG-13; Lions Gate): Tyler Perry’s absurd performance as a crazed Grandmother named Madea disrupts the central story line of a woman (Kimberly Elise) deserted by her husband (Steve Harris) and seeking to rebuild her life. Based on Perry’s own plays (and scripted for the screen by the writer), this BET-produced comedy-drama seems more suited to the small screen than the multiplex, where it nevertheless drummed up a superb $50 million plus in domestic sales. Still, you’d have to be a die-hard fan of Perry’s material to get much out of this effort. Lions Gate’s DVD includes a fine 16:9 widescreen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, Perry’s commentary, outtakes, two featurettes and trailers. 

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