Mark Burger’´s VIDEO VAULT

by Mark Burger

SLAUGHTER HIGH (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Of the many bad slasher films that proliferated during the 1980s, this British-made outing from 1986 may be the worst of them all — but that doesn’t prevent it from being an appallingly, ridiculously entertaining experience. Once upon a time, a group of high-school students — all of whom look to be in their 20s — tormented and accidentally caused the disfigurement of class nerd Marty Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore) in a lab accident. Years later, each student receives an invitation to return for a class reunion — unaware that Marty has invited them and is planning a bloody revenge. Just add sex, drugs and gore — and fill in the blanks. George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten are credited as the writer/directors, and Dugdale ended up marrying leading lady Caroline Munro (the only name in the cast). Sadly, this marked Scuddamore’s first and last film; the actor committed suicide shortly after its completion. The film is noteworthy, so to speak, for its atrocious acting, cliché-riddled script, uninspired direction and ridiculous score by Harry Manfredini. It’s hard to recommend the film on any level… but that’s precisely why it “works“ (so to speak), entertaining in spite of itself. It’s hard to hate a movie this bad. No stars. (But don’t let that dissuade you!)

ALSO ON DVD CLASSIC FILM NOIR DOUBLE FEA- TURE — VOLUME 3 (VCI Entertainment): A double-feature of low-budget golden oldies: Turhan Bey stars as a bogus medium opposite Lynn Bari, Cathy O’Donnell and Richard Carlson in 1948’s The Amazing Mr. X (AKA The Spiritualist), based on a Crane Wilbur story; Anthony Mann directed 1949’s Reign of Terror (AKA The Black Book), set during the French Revolution and starring Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl and Norman Lloyd. This DVD twin-bill retails for $19.99.

DARK REEL (North American Motion Pictures): Although well-made, this over-ambitious combination of ghost story, whodunit and slasher film — with echoes of Hollywood satire and the Black Dahlia murder case — is both confusing and overlong. Nevertheless, it won some awards at film festivals and boasts a genre-friendly cast: Lance Henriksen, Edward Furlong, Tony Todd, Tiffany Shepis, Tracey Walter, Rena Riffel and Alexandra Holden. Rated R. *’½

DARN GOOD WESTERNS — VOLUME 1 (VCI Entertainment): A six-pack of Westerns from the 1940s and ’50s: Rod Cameron stars in 1948’s Panhandle, which was co-written and co-produced by future director Blake Edwards, who also co-stars; Sterling Hayden, Ward Bond and James Arness star in Hellgate (1952); Charles Chaplin Jr. made his starring debut in 1954’s Fangs of the Wild (AKA Follow the Hunter); Don “Red” Barry (who wrote the story) and Robert Lowery are aboard 1950’s Train to Tombstone; Operation Haylift (also ’50) stars Bill Williams and Joe Sawyer (who also wrote the story); and Bob Steele saddles up for Wildfire: The Story of a Horse (1945). This two-disc set retails for $29.99.

DEGRASSI: THE NEXT GENERATION — SEASON SEVEN (Echo Bridge Home Entertainment): All 24 episodes (uncut and uncensored) from the 2007-’08 season of the award-winning, ongoing, syndicated drama series — broadcast in the US on “The N” — focusing on the trials and tribulations facing contemporary teenagers. This boxed set, which includes such special features as deleted scenes, bloopers and Web episodes, retails for $49.99.

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST (Image Entertainment): Acclaimed director Bertrand Tavernier’s first American film stars Tommy Lee Jones as a hard-boiled New Orleans cop investigating a murder that has ties to a 40-year-old murder… and his own past. Adapted from In the Electic Mist with Confederate Dead, one in the best-selling series (17, so far) of crime novels by James Lee Burke, this has an appropriately boozy, moody atmosphere but is also convoluted, confusing and disjointed — the quintessential example of an “interesting failure.” A longer version was released overseas, but this bypassed US theatrical release altogether, despite the presence of Jones and a stellar supporting cast including John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Sarsgaard, Levon Helm, Kelly Macdonald, James Gammon, Pruitt Taylor Vince, filmmaker John Sayles and even Buddy Guy, who also contributes to the film’s soundtrack. Rated R. **

“LAUGHING MATTERS… NEXT GEN- ERATION” (Ariztical Entertainment): The latest installment of producer/director Andrea Meyerson’s award-winning series of comedy specials showcases such up-and-coming gay and lesbian stand-up comics as Daniel Leary, Ryan Hill, Amy Tee, Bridget McManus, Edison Apple and Gloria Bigelow. Not surprisingly, this film concentrates on stand-up material related to their sexuality, but Leary’s riffs on e-mail abbreviations and regarding his appearance in a Kelly Clarkson music video are a scream. **’½

“LIFE OF RYAN” — THE COMPLETE SERIES, SEASONS 1-3 (MTV Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): All 29 episodes from the MTV reality series (which aired 2007-’08) focusing on the day-to-day triumphs and travails of 17-year-old professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler. This boxed set, which includes never-beforeseen episodes, retails for $29.99.

THE LINA WERTMULLER COLLEC- TION (KOCH Lorber Films): Five feature films by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker — the first woman ever to receive an Academy Award nomination as best director: Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato star in the award-winning Swept Away… (1974); Seven Beauties (1975) earned Wertmuller her Oscar nomination, as well as nominations for best actor (Giannini), Wertmuller’s original screenplay, and foreign-language film; Melato’s back for Summer Night (1986); Stefania Sandrelli stars in the 1996 adaptation of The Nymph; and Sergio Assisi and Gabriella Pession play the title roles in Fernando and Carolina (1999). Each film is presented in Italian with English subtitles. Each film retails for $24.98 except Seven Beauties (two discs), which retails for $29.98. A boxed set including a bonus disc featuring an exclusive interview with Wertmuller, retails for $99.98.

MASK OF THE NINJA (RHI Entertainment/ Genius Products): Hard-boiled cop Casper Van Dien finds himself caught in the middle of a grudge match between warring Ninja clans in this predictable chop socky time-killer for undiscriminating fans. Rated R. **

PALO ALTO, CA (Image Entertainment): The title town is the setting for this sincere, sometimes on-target, ensemble comedy in the vein of American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, as a group of college students — all boyhood friends — spend an eventful evening on their last night of Thanksgiving vacation. A noteworthy feature debut for director Brad Leong (who was 21 when he made the film) and screenwriter Tony Vallone, inspired by their own experiences. The talented young cast includes Autumn Reeser, Ben Savage, Johnny Lewis, Aaron Ashmore, Shoshana Bush, Rosalie Ward, Connor Ross, Robin Hines and Justin Mentell. Even Tom Arnold, playing the deranged driver of the neighborhood school bus, is appealing in the token “adult” role. The actual onscreen title is simply Palo Alto. Rated R. **’½

PIRATES II: STAGNETTI’S REVENGE (MTI Home Video): This is the edited version of the sequel to a popular, award-winning adult film produced by Digital Playground — reportedly the most expensive film of its kind in history (and undoubtedly inspired by the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). Among those who reprise their roles are Jesse Jane, Stephen St. Croix, Evan Stone and Tommy Gunn (in the title role). This version, which retails on DVD for $24.95 and on Blu-ray for $34.95, retains the special effects and swashbuckling scenes of action, but not the hardcore ones, and is therefore rated R.

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): The word “absurd” comes to mind when pondering the merits of this sequel to the 2004 action blow-out, based on the Marvel Comics series, with Ray Stevenson assuming the role of ex-copturned-unstoppable-crime-fighter Frank Castle and Dominic West chewing the scenery with abandon as the sadistic and scarred “Jigsaw.” Silly, messy and ultra-violent… but the action scenes do have flair, and isn’t that what this sort of thing is all about? Available as a single-disc DVD ($29.95 retail), a two-disc DVD special edition ($34.98 retail), or a two-disc Blu-ray special edition ($39.99 retail). Rated R. **

THE READER (Genius Products): Kate Winslet, at long last, won the Academy Award as best actress for her powerful performance in director Stephen Daldry’s compelling adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s international best-seller, playing a woman whose passionate affair with a teenager (David Kross) in post-war Germany has unforeseen ramifications years later. Although it has its soap-opera moments — not inappropriate, given the sweep of the story — this is a powerful examination of morality and conscience, and one of 2008’s best films. Additional Oscar nominations for best picture, director, cinematography and adapted screenplay (David Hare). Dedicated to producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, both of whom died during post-production. Rated R. ***’½

SHATTERED CITY: THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION (Genius Entertainment): Engrossing, Canadian-made melodrama — originally broadcast as a miniseries in the US — dramatizing the circumstances surrounding a collision of ships in the Halifax Harbor that resulted in a cataclysmic explosion that killed over 2,000 people. The “big” names in the cast, Pete Postlethwaite and Graham Greene, are in support of such lesser-known (but not unfamiliar) principals as Vincent Walsh, Shauna MacDonald, Tamara Hope, Lynne Griffin, Clare Stone and Richard Donat, most of them playing members of a family around which the story revolves. A safe bet for fans of disaster movies. **’½

THE SINFUL DWARF (Severin Films): Mere words cannot adequately describe this twisted and tacky 1973 British/Danish grindhouse favorite (released in the US as Abducted Bridge), with one-time kiddie-show host Torbin Bille (billed only as “Torbin”) in the title role, a deranged dwarf who keeps a stable of nubile, naked, heroin-addicted young women chained in the attic of the boarding house he shares with his equally loony mother (Clara Keller). Pretentious and gratuitous in equal, unwatchable measure… but is it any wonder this has a cult following? *’½

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): The little film that could — and did. Director Danny Boyle’s dazzling, one-of-a-kind adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel stars Dev Patel (in his screen debut) as a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” His answers are informed by his impoverished boyhood on the streets of Mumbai, and despite the many obstacles against him, he is determined to reunite with the girl (Freida Pinto, in her screen debut) he has adored since boyhood. A true underdog story that combines whimsy, grit and romance, and defied the odds to become both an international box-office sensation and the big winner at the 2008 Academy Awards: Best picture, director, adapted screenplay (Simon Beaufroy), cinematography, editing, sound, original score and song (“Jai Ho”), with additional nominations for sound editing and song (“O Saya”). Rated R. ***’½

STREET WARRIOR (RHI Entertainment/Genius Products): In order to avenge his brother’s death, a disillusioned Iraqi War veteran (Max Martini) participates in an underground fight club. Predictable junk with an amusingly hammy turn by Nick Chinlund as the nefarious promoter. *’½

SWAMP DEVIL (RHI Entertainment/Genius Products): The woods are alive with the sounds of killing in this award-winning shocker about a supernatural force at large in a small Southern burg. Top-billed Bruce Dern doesn’t have much to do until the second half, at which point the action accelerates nicely. Nothing spectacular, but horror fans should get their fill. **’½

VOODOO DOLLZ (Retromedia Entertainment/Infinity Entertainment Group): Charlie Laine, Beverly Nguyen, Nicole Sheridan, Beverly Lynne, Syren and the ever-lovely Michelle Bauer are among the glamorous gals mixed up with devilish goings-on at a girls’ finishing school. As is typical of the low-budget films by writer/director Nicholas Medina (AKA Fred Olen Ray), there are some in-jokes — but this is mostly concerned with softcore, mostly Sapphic, sex scenes. *’½

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2009, Mark Burger