Tuesday, November 17, 2009

the wild wild world of public domain comps

If you grew up on polished remastered Special Edition dvds you're probably not up for this, but if you spent time watching crappily-edited cuts of deservedly obscure drive-in flicks on cable or grey-market VHS dubs or at some scuzzy Times Square theater or from the back of your pickup at a Florida drive-in, there's something oddly *soothing* about these twenty-for-five-dollars collections. A perfect collection ends up with a couple actual classics (which you probably have a nice remastered copy of in the collection), a few previously unseen weirdo movies you've never heard of (or vaguely remember from some web review) which you'll definitely want in a remastered edition, a bunch of vaguely entertaining movies that aren't well made or brilliant but are definitely entertaining and offer some kinda kicks (usually of the "I suspect everyone working on this movie was taking a lot of drugs" genre), and an equal amount of unredeemable shit which will give you a brain cramp and leave you feeling cheated and unsatisfied, like when your brother's wife gets drunk, rubs your leg, whispers in your ear and goes home laughing. You take your chances with collections like this, and that's part of the fun -- films which your favorite blogger *loves* could just as easily be a bozak*, while shitty films could easily have some kinda nostalgic hook which makes it totally satisfying in a way that "good" movies could never do. I'll stick to sets I've bought and watched myself, though it's just scratching the surface. Likewise there's plenty of places which specialize in public domain releases, such as Something Weird, Brutallo and Five Minutes To Live, but those are single/double releases with quite a bit of care put into the release and deserving of a different status. I need to make special note of Damon Packard's Big Box of Evil, a collection of six late sixties/early seventies movies of the week (absolutely crammed with bonus features), of which I'm *still* trying to finish my review -- I'll just say if you're a Packard fan, or if you're into this kinda jazz in general (and I'll assume if you've read this far that includes you) it's worth getting.

So where to start? My personal fave is titled Horror: Do Not Watch Alone and is available in cutout bins everywhere -- copies are pretty easy to come by at Wal-Mart or Best Buy for five bucks. There's a three dvd and a four dvd version, and the four dvd is obviously the one to get, as you end up with twenty movies, including some all-time public domain classics like Dementia 13, Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead -- these copies are all rough, and like I said that cut of Carnival of Souls is not gonna replace your Criterion copy, but it's nice having the version I remember from local all-night horror shows. There's also quite a few genuinely great later giallos -- Deep Red and Cat O' Nine Tails are definite standouts, though it's worth noting these are not the international edits. One of my favorite films on this collection is The Pyx, which is not really a horror movie but certainly captures '70s bummerism perfectly. There's really only a couple of out-and-out bad films in this collection and if you're looking for a cheap place to start with weirdo horror it's totally worth the cash.

This brings us to Mill Creek, home of an endless series of box sets containing double-sided budget DVD collections of much sketchier material. The first thing to note when looking at a Mill Creek collection is that the title and movie descriptions on the back have absolutely nothing to do with the contents -- the Gorehouse Greats collection barely has any gore whatsoever, and half the films on that collection aren't even really horror films but a seemingly random collection of Crown International drive-in flicks -- how do you explain Trip With The Teacher (which I should review!) in this collection? Note also that most of these films are also available on Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. II, so if you have that there's not much reason to bother. There are some really great films in this bunch, however -- I'm a huge fan of Satan's Slave (which is sadly not available on Vol. II), and there's a few really low-rent films great for vegitating on the couch. Slightly more truthful are the Drive-In Cult Classics collections, which usually have a few really interesting films (you can get Pickup on the first collection, a film I absolutely adore, and the grossly mistitled Blood Mania on the third, which might not be great but definitely delivers on the weird '70s vibe in spades), and at five bucks each it's hard to go wrong. Sketchier still are the Mill Creek 50 movie packs, and if you like black and white-era horror it's hard to go wrong with the Horror Classics box, which definitely has a good percentage of great films. I have a soft spot for the 50 Chilling Classics box, even though it has a really high crap-to-genius ratio, mostly because it has a few really great films (A Bell From Hell and Messiah of Evil both come to mind as films I've since bought as remastered editions) and some just plain *weird* movies (what's the one with Robert Englund which is basically a hippie version of Deliverance? It's not great, but it's definitley *interesting*) along with a few films where it's almost impossible to understand how they even managed to get made. Not for beginners!

Of course, after spending a week trawling through one of these boxes I always tell myself this will be the last time -- the moments of genius just don't balance out the mind-destroying dreck (and it's pretty rare I'll turn off a movie before it ends, as it feels somehow like cheating), but a few weeks later, the next time I have ten bucks burning a hole in my pocket, I'm back for another round. To misquote Big Black: lately I have been frequenting bad movies, places no respectable man would be seen.

*The term "bozak", which is EPMD-ese for penis, is a term my late (and greatly missed) friend Phil and I devised for a plot twist which deliberately and maliciously fucks with the audience for no good reason -- in this sense it's not like Brechtian dissonance, where it supposedly functions as disenchantment, but just because it's funny. I found out recently that Hitchcock has a term for this very act, but I can't remember what it is now.

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