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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Horror... The Horror...
(Continued)


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The Mangler

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The Mangler
1995 (2004) - New Line

Film Rating: D+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B+/D-

In 1985, a movie that combined the talents of director Tobe Hooper, "Freddy" Robert Englund, and Stephen King would have probably kicked my ass all over the schoolyard. Unfortunately, The Mangler was made in 1995, not '85, by which time it wasn't such a big deal anymore. King's Night Shift collection had already been plundered for such cinematic losers as Children of the Corn, Graveyard Shift, and King's own Maximum Overdrive. Englund had tried and failed to break free from Freddy in movies like Phantom of the Opera. And as for Hooper... he was just entering what has to be the lowest point ever suffered by any of the once-great horror filmmakers of the 70s, a period whose nadir was marked by the unbelievably bad Crocodile.


In King's original short story, The Mangler is a perfectly simple little gross-out tale about a sheet-folder in an industrial laundry that causes a bunch of accidents. It's nothing special. Just a clever little piece of literary popcorn for your brain to chew on while you're riding a bus or, even better, doing your own laundry. It isn't enough to base a whole movie on, so Hooper's Mangler puts Englund in metal leg braces and about 20 pounds of old-age makeup as the laundry's sinister owner. He doesn't do much more than clank out onto the walkway every time somebody falls into the Mangler and bark such folksy curses as "Hell's bells, Adelle!" Ted Levine is a local cop investigating the accidents. For whatever reason, he decides to bring along his hippie brother-in-law whose interest in the occult leads him to suspect that the machine is haunted or possessed.

This is all well and good. No matter how dumb it is, there just isn't enough in the story to make a movie and the screen's gotta be filled with something. The fatal flaw with The Mangler is that the main villain is a huge, immovable piece of machinery. It just sits there and let's face it, there's only so many ways a person can get sucked into one of these things. Once you've seen one body mangled, you've seen 'em all. Everything else in the movie is just filler to get from death to death and it's none too entertaining. I amused myself for about thirty seconds trying to decide whether or not the European, shaggy-haired brother-in-law character was intentionally modeled after comic book writer Alan Moore, then decided I didn't care either way.

New Line's DVD of The Mangler looks and sounds OK. The only real extra is a comparison between the theatrical and unrated versions of the film, with the R-rated sequence on the top of the screen and the gorier stuff playing simultaneously on the bottom.

In its defense, The Mangler is not the worst film to be derived from the writings of Stephen King, nor is it the worst movie Robert Englund has starred in and it sure isn't the worst movie Tobe Hooper has directed. But considering the movies that actually are in the running for that honor, that ain't exactly high praise. The Mangler is silly, dull and utterly disposable. Instead of watching it, I recommend watching some old educational films about preventing actual industrial accidents instead. They're far more entertaining and you might even learn something.


The Guyver
1991 (2004) - New Line

Film Rating: D-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/F

The Guyver 2: Dark Hero
1994 (2004) - New Line

Film Rating: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B+/F

The GuyverThe Guyver 2: Dark Hero

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital SurroundEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Technically speaking, these two movies based on a Japanese comic book aren't really horror movies at all. But despite the science fiction and action movie trappings, these are basically monster movies and therefore of interest to horror fans. And while the movies are similar enough to be recognizably linked to each other, their approaches to the material couldn't be more different.

In the first movie, we are introduced to the idea that mankind was created by aliens along with a race of shapeshifting creatures called Zoanoids. The monsters are after an alien weapon called the Guyver. Once activated, the Guyver encases its owner in bio-mechanical armor and turns him into the ultimate fighting machine. The device is accidentally discovered by Shawn (Jack Armstrong), an ordinary college student with a crush on the daughter of one of the few good Zoanoids. Mark Hamill also stars as a rumpled Colombo-like CIA agent on the case who eventually mutates into a giant cockroach. Also making appearances is a virtual horror fan's dream cast of character actors, including Michael Berryman, David Gale from Re-Animator, Linnea Quigley and Jeffrey Combs (as Dr. East... get it, Re-Animator fans?! Huh?).

So with monsters, bio-armor, and that cast, you'd think The Guyver would be goofy fun, right? Wrong-o! Co-directed by Steve Wang and FX guru Screaming Mad George, The Guyver is like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon with bad jokes, awful music, and even a live-action equivalent of the stiff limited animation used on shows like these. The Guyver doesn't get to do much of anything except some kung fu moves, which hardly seems like ultimate weapon material to me. There's a lot of fight scenes between the Guyver and the Zoanoids but, believe it or not, a badly staged fistfight in a warehouse between guys in rubber monster suits is no more exciting than one between ordinary people. And just when you think the movie can't get much worse, Jimmy "J.J." Walker raps. Dyn-o-mite!

Going in totally the opposite direction of the PG-13 original, the R-rated Guyver: Dark Hero eschews comedy entirely. Steve Wang directs this one solo as Shawn (now played by David Hayter, better known these days as the screenwriter of the X-Men movies) finds himself struggling with the Guyver inside him. The device has turned him into a killing machine (quite a change from the first one, where he's barely able to kill monsters, much less people). Shawn wants answers so he heads to an archaeological dig in Utah where discoveries are being made that point toward the aliens who invented the Guyver in the first place.

While the first Guyver movie was aimed strictly at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle set, Guyver 2: Dark Hero practically paints its sets with fake blood. There's a lot of violence and this time, the Guyver suit actually seems to give Shawn powers other than martial arts. But while Guyver 2 is a more entertaining movie than the first one (not a hard goal to reach), it's still not wholly successful. This movie is looooooong, clocking in at over two hours! If a movie like this reaches the 100-minute mark, it's pushing its luck. Guyver 2 takes its luck and pushes it right off the edge of the nearest cliff. Cut a good half hour from the movie (which could be done easily without losing any narrative clarity) and you've got yourself a solid little B-picture. As it is, it's a C at best.

New Line offers no extras whatsoever for either film but does give them a decent technical presentation, with DTS tracks and reasonably solid transfers. Guyver 2's image is often very grainy, making it look like it was made about ten years before the first one, but it's far from unwatchable.


Tetsuo: The Iron Man
1992 (2005) - Tartan Asia Extreme

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/D

Wishing Stairs
2003 (2005) - Tartan Asia Extreme

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B-

Tetsuo: The Iron ManWishing Stairs

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Bio-mechanical armor of a totally different sort forms the basis of Shinya Tsukamoto's 1992 cult classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tetsuo is pretty indescribable but I'll give it a shot. Tomoroh Taguchi plays an unnamed Salaryman whose body begins to mutate into a weird new mechanical shape after a hit-and-run accident and an encounter with a mutating woman on a subway platform. The Salaryman's antagonist is the Fetishist, who we first see slicing open his own leg and inserting a metal rod into the wound. Ultimately, the two men merge into something more than the sum of their parts.

Tetsuo is one of those movies that's hard to categorize as strictly horror or strictly sci-fi. Like Eraserhead and Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, it's a disturbing and highly unsettling film that provokes unease not so much through conventional scare tactics as through the creation of a totally alien mood. Tetsuo sure isn't your usual narrative-driven movie but the layering of sound and image create a feeling far more disturbing than any of the other movies in this column.

Tetsuo is a great movie but unfortunately, Tartan's long-awaited DVD isn't the home run I'd hoped it would be. It looks much, much better than any previous release within the confines of what's possible with the rough 16mm source material. Even so, if you like this movie you'll be very pleased with this new transfer. All the sound options, ranging from the original mono to DTS 5.1, are excellent. But extras are virtually non-existent. There are filmographies for the cast and director and some OK production notes but that's about it. The oddest extra is a series of clips from other Tsukamoto films soon to be released by Tartan, including Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, A Snake of June, Tokyo Fist, and his latest movie, Vital. There are actual trailers for some of these movies on the disc as well but these are complete 2-3 minute scenes from each film. It did make me want to see the ones I haven't already seen and rewatch those I have, so I guess it's a successful marketing ploy but it's not much of a bonus.

A more traditional example of the latest wave of Asian horror is the 2003 Korean film Wishing Stairs. Set in a girls' art school, the title refers to a long 28-step stairway where, according to legend, if a 29th step appears, a spirit will grant you your fondest wish. Of course, the legend is true. Unfortunately, the high school setting means that the stairs are used by adolescent girls consumed by jealousy, anger, and low self-esteem, making their fondest wishes not entirely pure.

Wishing Stairs is the third in a series of high-school based horror films from Korea and many of the usual tropes of Asian horror are on proud display here. Girl with hair hanging in front of her face, crawling unnaturally toward you a la the Ringu series? We've got that. Eerie, mysterious figures appearing in the periphery of the frame? Done and done. What sets Wishing Stairs apart is the fact that it's one of the few horror films I've seen, foreign or domestic, to be written by, directed by and starring all women. This provides a unique take on this usually male-dominated genre and, perhaps not surprisingly, means the characters are a lot richer and more sympathetic than they might otherwise be. Wishing Stairs isn't the peak of the Asian horror craze. It is, however, a creepy and entertaining movie worth seeking out.

While the picture and sound quality are just as good as you could hope, Tartan does a better job with the extras on Wishing Stairs than they did with Tetsuo. There's a 36-minute making-of feature, narrated by one of the young actresses, which is a bit slow-moving but not bad. Better are the 20 minutes of straight on-camera interviews with the cast. The "Director's Sketchbook and Notes" is an odd title for a selection of featurettes covering the makeup, music and ultimately, an actual sketchbook that plays a key role in the film. There's also galleries of poster art and stills, plus another selection of promotional trailers for other Tartan releases.

The Asian influence on modern horror is so pervasive that it's impossible to ignore even if you wanted to. Like it or not, movies like Ringu and Ju-On revitalized the genre. American audiences can either wait for the inevitable domestic remake or go right to the source and see what the fuss is about with movies like Wishing Stairs. But if you actually want to see something unnerving, something that will mess with your head and leave you shaken but exhilarated, you've got to go way outside the box. Tetsuo: The Iron Man may not fit the standard definition of horror and that's exactly what makes it so frightening.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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