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Coroners Corner | horror | movie | column | Lollipop

Coroner's Corner

The Joy of Inter-personal Mayhem

by John Bikowski

It seems that every day the market is flooded with newly reasserted DVDs of films from the past. I would normally say "Sweet!" But upon sifting through many of the titles, I find myself saying "Who the hell would want to watch this film again??!" I'll bet they're just lining up all over to score a copy of Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator (thanks to Troma).
Thankfully, some companies, like Elite Entertainment, Image, and Anchor Bay, actually care about what they sell. There are also some smaller subsidiary outfits that have managed to get ahold of some serious classics. Case in point is a new Canadian distributor called VSC. On their Critical Mass label they recently cleaned up one of my all time favorites, Black Christmas.

The Black Christmas DVD features interactive menus with scene indexes and cast bios. Also included is a very unnerving trailer that actually does the film justice. I want to thank VSC, not only for releasing the film, but for doing it up right. I was able to compare the long out-of-print video release to the DVD and noticed marked improvements. Gone are the faded colors. Gone are the sound spikes in the soundtrack. Gone are the "Is the TV still on??" night shots. What you get is a well-done digital remaster of a long-ignored groundbreaker.

When you watch this film, remember that it predated seminal slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th. Also keep in mind that this shocker was directed by Bob Clark, who also did Porky's and A Christmas Story (you'll shoot your eye out, kid!). The story begins with POV shots of someone sneaking into the attic of a sorority house attended to by the likes of Margot Kidder (drunken slut) and Olivia Hussey (respectable cutie). Most of the girls are leaving for the holidays, but a small group has remained to become murder victims for our viewing pleasure. Olivia has a nutcase boyfriend (Keir Dullea) who has knocked her up and is flunking out of school. John Saxon is the cop who thinks the impregnator may also be the one responsible for the town's disappearing girls. Meanwhile, the house keeps getting calls from some really screwed up fella who screams in many voices (The infamous "C" word gets tossed out several times in one obscene call. Now you know this film won't pull any punches). Black Christmas succeeds in creating thick tension with creepy voices and nursery rhymes from the killer as well as genuine scares induced by skillful misdirection. Throw in an ending that doesn't let the viewer off the meathook they've been squirming on and you have a time-worn classic guaranteed to ruin your Christmas.

Next, we have two more gory delights that I highly recommend from Anchor Bay. The first is Opera, directed by the Italian maestro Dario Argento in 1987. This disc was also released as a collector's tin that includes the soundtrack CD. The regular release includes the widescreen presentation, American and Euro trailers, and an Argento bio. Another bonus is the 36-minute documentary, "Conducting Dario Argento's Opera," which features numerous interviews with stars and other Italian horror icons. The final extra is the music video by Daemonia, led by former Goblin founder Claudio Simonetti. The group plays Argento soundtracks but beefs them up with Satriani-like guitar riffs and Lars-like double bass thunder. I saw them live and they rule the underworld. As for the quality of the feature film, the picture is only slightly softer than the Anchor Bay perfection known as Deep Red. The quality, however, finally does justice to the beauty that Argento intended to capture.

Opera is not an easy film to swallow for the casual viewer. If you enjoyed Suspiria and are looking for more of the same, you may not be pleased. Opera is the type of film that needs to be savored and visited on several occasions for it to cast its spell on you. Not that Argento's usual hooks are not here: Mind-bending violence, sweeping musical scores, dizzying camera work, etc. They are, but the film has a very European flavor. The actors say and do things that seem very bizarre to most Americans. Therefore, the film leaves you with an overall feeling that's quite strange.

The story is about a young understudy, Betty, who secures the lead role of Lady Macbeth when the star gets reamed by a car. Betty is very timid because she believes the legends about Macbeth being a cursed opera that dooms everyone involved with it. Nevertheless, her performance rockets her to fame and her troubles soon begin. In the midst of celebrating her success, a hooded assailant hog-ties her to a column and tapes needles under her eyes. He warns her that she is not to close her eyes or she will tear them apart. (This is really a plea from Argento to us viewers. He does not want us to look away from the beautiful scenes of violence that he is famous for). As Betty watches helplessly, her boyfriend is butchered in a very brutal scene. We see a large knife blade surprise him as it explodes up under his jaw. The camera delves into his open mouth to see the blade pop through, spraying his tongue with geysers of blood. The blade is withdrawn only to be stabbed repeatedly into the victim's flailing arms and hands until he moves no more. The killer then grabs a clump of sopping hair and lets the lifeless skull slam back to the stone floor. Betty is then released and the killer disappears.

It seems that Betty has an obsessed fan stalking her and killing for her. The psychopath has chosen Betty because he used to play similar "games" with her mother years ago. The tension builds as the corpses pile up and the director of the play has an ingenious breakthough in the investigation. At one point, the killer savages several ravens that are part of the show. The hunch is that the birds would remember the killer and find him out in the audience. The pissed off blackbirds point the butcher out by graphically pecking out one of his eyeballs. Then all hell breaks loose on the way to a twist ending. Opera has so many unique scenes and qualities that it would be tough to list them all. Some of these include: A bird regurgitating an eye, blistering heavy metal riffs over massacre scenes, an impromptu tracheotomy to retrieve a locket, and shots of the killer's brain as it misfires in a state of schizophrenia. To top things off, you'll also find one of the best murder set pieces I have ever seen. It involves a long eyehole, a slo-mo bullet, an eye, a phone, and impeccable timing on the part of Argento.

The last DVD selection is infamous for its excess and is known simply as Maniac. This 1980 film stars Joe Spinell as the titular nut and is revered by goremongers for showcasing Tom Savini's messiest F/X work. Savini became a legend after his makeup work on such classics as Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. This new DVD makes all the blood seem even more disgusting because the colors are surprisingly sharp for such a low budget film. Anchor Bay has put together a package that includes the widescreen presentation, a running audio commentary (by director William Lustig, Tom Savini, and others), radio interviews with the stars, a 49-minute documentary on star Joe Spinell, theatrical trailers, TV spots, radio spots, a "gallery of outrage," a poster and still gallery, talent bios, and language and subtitle options. Basically, if you like Maniac even a little, Anchor Bay has made this product irresistible,

Spinell plays Frank Zito, a New Yorker haunted by abuse from his younger days. He likes to bring home mannequins to sleep with and fondle. Unfortunately for everyone else in New York, he also likes to adorn his plastic lovers with the scalps and torn clothing from beautiful women he has eviscerated. As Frank becomes increasingly manic, he kills more and more often, stopping his spree occasionally for his love interest. For some unknown reason, the extremely hot former Bond-girl Caroline Munro enjoys spending some time with the fat, slobbering psycho. I met her a couple of times and, despite being my Mother's age, she is still hot (and I think she wants me). Anyhow, Frank spirals out of control and is eventually torn to bloody shreds by his mannequins. That's right... Despite being an involving character study, the real reason for this film is the gore. Jugulars are splayed open, skulls are scalped in up-close detail, a bayonet is slowly pushed through a chest, a girl is stabbed and humped to death, a head is shotgun-blasted to chunky oblivion, a maggot-infested mother zombie gropes from her grave, and much more. A full scale ten on the puke-o-meter.


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