Rupert Pupkin Speaks: VHS Gems Guest Post: William Bibbiani ""

Thursday, October 11, 2012

VHS Gems Guest Post: William Bibbiani

 William "Bibbs" Bibbiani is the Film Channel Editor over at Crave Online ( He is also one of the co-hosts of the wonderful B-Movies Podcast (, which I am a big fan of. He is very active on twitter as well and can be found at @williambibbiani.

When you think of movies that haven’t made the transition to DVD – let alone Blu-ray – you often think of films that aren’t good enough to survive the test of time. Or maybe a handful with serious legal issues. But sometimes even great movies get forgotten by distributors who, for one reason or another, don’t think there’s an audience waiting for them. I spit on those distributors, but without phlegm since I don’t want to piss them off too bad. There are some truly excellent films on my “VHS Gems” list, a few iffy genre flicks of note and only one genuine crapburger, but it’s so legendary, so embarrassing, and so utterly ridiculous that it deserves to be rediscovered. Which one did I pick? You’ll just have to read every single entry to find out. Or skip to the end. But don’t do that.

To Sleep with Anger (1990)
To Sleep with Anger stars Danny Glover, in easily his best performance, as Harry Mention, a mischievous man who visits an old friend in South Central Los Angeles and unsettles their lives with insidious temptation. Charles Burnett, an oft-forgotten but truly exceptional director whose underseen classic Killer of Sheep only recently got a DVD release of its own, directs this film with understated drama, rarely calling attention to his implication that Harry might just be the devil, in a very literal sense. On one hand it’s a quiet character study, on the other it’s a dark and penetrating look at the quiet reality behind our very concept of evil.

 Riot on Cell Block 11 (1954)
There are Don Siegel films I like more than others, but I’ve never seen a bad one. Lots of folks know his work on Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Hell is for Heroes, but few have seen his prison classic Riot on Cell Block 11, because it’s not on DVD. Producer Robert Wanger, an ex-convict himself, came up with the idea to make a hard-hitting film about prison conditions, and Siegel wound up directing this story about a group of inmates who take over their penitentiary and hold the security guards ransom. All they ask for their safe return is fair treatment. It doesn’t go well for them. Biting, suspenseful and thematically disparate from his most famous film, Dirty Harry, I consider Riot on Cell Block 11 to be one of Don Siegel’s most important films. Of many.

 Arena (1989)
It’s such a clever idea that I’m amazed nobody’s remade it: Arena tells the typical underdog fighter story, but sets the action in a sci-fi world where the hero takes on a series of menacing aliens in the ring. For a low-budget movie, the practical effects are pretty amazing, with many of the aliens at least on par with higher-quality seasons of “Star Trek,” and the plot is hokey enough that all the other niggling deficiencies all feel like part of Arena’s charm. And just for fun, it stars Claudia Christian and Armin Shimerman, who went on to similar pastures in “Babylon 5” and “Deep Space Nine,” respectively. It’s a dumb sci-fi movie, but a really entertaining one that deserves a new audience.

 Run (1991)
Before “Grey’s Anatomy,” Patrick Dempsey was a star. For about five minutes. But towards the end of those five minutes he starred in Run, a very fine Hitchcockian thriller about a hotshot mechanic who stops off in a corrupt town, only to accidentally kill the son of a Mafioso over a game of cards. With everyone in the city out for the reward on his head, and only the fine young Kelly Preston by his side, he’ll have to use his wits, and what I can only imagine was a lot of cardiovascular exercise, to survive. It’s kind of like After Hours meets The 39 Steps, although not quite as good as that comparison makes it sound. It’s a fun chase flick with some memorable set pieces and a way-too-abrupt ending, and it’s worth remembering. I figured there’d be some demand for Run on DVD, even a barebones release, after the “McDreamy” boom, but I guess I’m the only one who cares.

 Wild Thing (1987)
I have fond memories this wackjob action movie, which stars future “Prison Break” co-star Robert Knepper as an urban Tarzan, a “wild thing” who defends his neighborhood from violent criminals and befriends his romantic lead, Kathleen Quinlan. John Sayles wrote the screenplay, and it’s not one of his classier films, but it’s a nifty concoction of unusual action tropes in a pleasingly grungy 1980s aesthetic. And it has a killer grappling hook umbrella, making it a “must see.” If you can find it.

 Bugsy Malone (1976)
The cult of Bugsy Malone is by now a matter of public record, so it’s really annoying that it’s still not available on a proper DVD. Future Midnight Express and Angel Heart director Alan Parker made a particularly strange feature film debut with this straightforward 1930s gangster flick, in which all the parts are played by preteens like Scott Baio and Jodie Foster. Oh, and it’s also a musical with fabulous songs written by the inimitable Paul Williams, who landed the film’s only Oscar nomination for Best Original Song Score. Bugsy Malone is a very strange experience, but also an infectious one. When they finally release this sucker properly on DVD and Blu-ray (like they keep threatening to) it’s going to sell very well.

 Fast Getaway 1 & 2 (1991/1994)
The Fast Getaway movies were a regular staple of my television viewing experience back in the early 1990s, and I suspect I’m not alone on that. Corey Haim (sans Feldman) stars as the son of a prolific but non-violent bank robber who runs afoul of his dad’s former partner, played by Cynthia Rothrock as a feisty kung fu dominatrix. The original’s the best (and technically available on a Region 2 DVD), but even the dopey sequel has a few clever car chases to recommend it. Absolute fluff, but they fluff me good.

 The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Oft-referenced but rarely seen outside of the occasional art house movie theater, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a highly influential proto-slasher film about a killer in a sack cloth mask (see: Friday the 13th Part 2) terrorizing a small Texas town in the 1940s. It’s based on a real serial killer, but heavily fictionalized. I’m not sure, but I certainly hope the ridiculous bit with the trombone wasn’t real. The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a documentary feel similar to director Charles B. Pierce’s other cult hit, The Legend of Boggy Creek, but I think this one’s better. Maybe I’m alone, since MGM doesn’t think there’s enough demand to make it available on DVD.

 Cast a Deadly Spell/Witch Hunt (1991/1994)
Two great HBO movies with impressive directors, stellar casts and easily quantifiable cult appeal? Naaaaah, let’s not release those. Cast a Deadly Spell, directed by Casino Royale’s Martin Campbell, stars Fred Ward as “Detective Phillip Lovecraft,” a P.I. in the 1940s who refuses to use magic even though everyone else in his hardboiled detective world does. The first film co-stars Julianne Moore, David Warner and Clancy Brown, all of them part of a Lovecraftian mystery. The second film, Witch Hunt, directed by Paul Schrader, shunts Phillip to the 1950s, where the Red Scare, in this universe, is a very literal “witch hunt.” Dennis Hopper takes over the lead role, Penelope Miller plays the love interest and a wonderfully hammy Eric Bogosian plays the corrupt politician with a malevolent scheme. They’re fun films, perhaps not great ones, but with this pedigree (Angelo Badalamenti scored Witch Hunt and super-producer Gale Anne Hurd spearheaded both productions), it’s kind of amazing that they’re so hard to find.

 The Keep (1983)
Like Howard the Duck before it, The Keep is a movie that hasn’t been released because someone behind the scenes doesn’t like it very much. Unlike Howard the Duck, nobody has been able to make a DVD release happen anyway. Michael Mann’s second and most atypical film stars Jurgen Prochnow as a Nazi in charge of holding the line at a haunted keep, Gabriel Byrne plays his even-eviler compatriot, Sir Ian McKellan plays a Jewish historian who makes a fateful deal with the demons who live within, and Scott Glenn has weird yoga sex on the sidelines just to be weird. The special effects are solid, the ideas are intriguing and the atmosphere is thicker than titanium, but yeah, it’s not very good. Kind of dull, actually. Still, The Keep such a novelty that it deserves to remain available.

 The Oscar (1966)

“You’ve got a glass head and I can see right through it. That’s how I know you’re stupid.”

Considered for years to be one of the worst movies ever made, The Oscar has fallen into almost complete obscurity thanks, I suspect, to its rampant unavailability. Ben-Hur’s Stephen Boyd stars as Franky Fane, who rises to Hollywood stardom despite being a total douchewaffle. He abuses his best friend, played by Tony Bennett (who’s just awful in this), his girlfriend (Jill St. John, future Bond Girl) and his new girlfriend (A Shot in the Dark’s Elke Summer), and just when you think his uppance is about to come, he gets nominated for an Academy Award. Not wanting to let the opportunity pass him by, he starts an illegal smear campaign against his competition. Co-written by Harlan Ellison and packed with showbiz cameos – including Milton Berle, Joseph Cotten, Ernest Borgnine and even Edith Head and Hedda Hopper (as themselves!) – I suspect The Oscar remains unavailable because it embarrasses everyone in the industry, and besmirches the very name of the Academy. It’s not just bad, it’s legitimately humiliating.

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