Tuesday, November 24, 2015

THE EXECUTIONER PART II & FROZEN SCREAM - DVD REVIEW

Inexplicably linked by producer-writer Renee Harmon, James Bryan’s The EXECUTIONER PART II and Frank Roach’s FROZEN SCREAM are a pair of insane, almost indescribable pieces of cinema, which are once again made available from the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome with this latest Drive-In Collection DVD.    

Despite the rather confusing title, it should be pointed out that James Bryan’s The EXECUTIONER PART II (1984) is NOT a sequel to Sam Wanamaker’s The EXECUTIONER (1970) with George Peppard, which was however, popular enough in Europe to gain financing on the title alone.  Clearly ‘inspired’ by James Glickenhaus’ rather slick New York-based revenge actioner The EXTERMINATOR (1980) with Robert Ginty (even the crudely-illustrated—if pretty cool—poster art features a Ginty lookalike), this extremely inept rip-off shifts the action to Los Angeles, where, instead of a flamethrower, the Executioner likes to use hand grenades and plenty of hand-to-hand combat.

A vigilante is on the loose in L.A. and the cops, led by detective Roger O’Malley (Chris Mitchum), are at a loss, even though some impromptu narration informs us, “Maybe we’d all sleep better if the police leave him alone.”  Celia Amhurst (producer Renee Harmon), a reporter on the case, tries to get answers, but she doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.  Meanwhile, O’Malley’s daughter Laura (Bianca Phillipi) is trying to pay for her drug addiction (“I need dope!”), and through her friend Kitty (Marisi Courtwright) is introduced to Pete Vance (Frank Albert), a lowlife pimp who arranges “special entertainment” for Tony Casallas (Frisco Estes), the local underworld boss better-known as “The Tattoo Man”, who also wants this “modern-day superman or reckless vigilante” dead, because he’s seriously interfering with Casallas’ criminal empire.  O’Malley continues his investigation and begins to suspect his friend and fellow ex-Vietnam veteran Mike (Antoine John Mottet), who has been suffering from some serious flashbacks…



Laura (Bianca Phillipi) and "The Tattoo Man" (Frisco Estes).

Although on paper it sounds like any run-of-the-mill vigilante film, James Bryan’s The EXECUTIONER PART II is, like Bryan’s DON’T GO IN THE WOODS (1980), incomparable to what most regular movies should be and feel like.  Breathtaking in its ineptitude, it’s one of the more impoverished and chaotically-assembled films you’re likely to stumble upon, with its own set of rules.  According to “The Executioner’s Song” (a filmed interview with director Bryan included on this disc), this film was shot using 35mm short-ends over weekends in order to maximize longer camera rentals, and even though Bryan is credited as the director, his directing credit is negligible since he was essentially “the crew”, doing any and every job he could.  Pieced together with whatever footage he could salvage, most of the dubbing and sound effects were also done in post-production, so the cut-rate action scenes have an exaggerated, other-worldly feel to them; the excruciatingly awful dubbing only adds to the threadbare production values and just about turns the film into a comedy.  Even many of the so-called gang members look like third-rate rejects from Walter Hill’s The WARRIORS (1979) auditioning for FLASHDANCE (1983), which seriously harms their credibility, and at times, the film almost seems like a sendup of the genre.  Only Tony Casallas as the elusive “Tattoo Man” demonstrates any real threat, and with the help of Pete, he gets to indulge in his sadistic tendencies when he puts out his cigarettes on Laura.  Regardless of its MANY shortcomings, The EXECUTIONER PART II still has an infinite amount of infectious energy, and for that fact alone it remains hugely entertaining.

Moving onto the other feature on this “Drive-In Collection” disc, Frank Roach’s FROZEN SCREAM (1980) is another Renee Harmon production, which allows this “German war bride”-turned-filmmaker even more screen time, and to be honest, is all the better for it.  She stars as Lil Stanhope, a doctor experimenting with immortality (“Ever since the creation of life, I have dreamed of immortality”), which involves reanimated corpses, robe-cloaked murderers and ocean-side séances.  Along with Sven Johnson (Lee James), they kill their former partner Tom Gerard (Wolf Muser) after he suffers from an ethical crisis, but they didn’t count on Tom’s wife Ann (Lynne Kocol) and Detective McGuire (Thomas Gowen) snooping into Tom’s mysterious death.

Renee Harmon as the nefarious Dr. Lil Stanhope.

Again, what at first appears to be a regular, rather mundane plotline becomes an almost mystifying film experience due to its unique and haphazard execution, and it has no right to be as enjoyable as it is.  Made on a shoestring by Harmon utilizing some of her film class students, FROZEN SCREAM moves in-between dream sequences and flashbacks without any thought whatsoever, which is further complicated by yet another hollow, post-dubbed soundtrack (courtesy of James Bryan who, once again, handled most of the post-production work) only adding to the already bizarre, but highly entertaining nature of this entire production.  What begins as a standard slasher film, complete with a double murder by a bug-eyed, robed man and typical P.O.V. shots soon escalates into something entirely different.  More murders do occur, including a rather gory axe to the head, but FROZEN SCREAM seems much more preoccupied with existential themes about human existence and our destinies in the afterlife (“What we call death is merely a change”).  During a flashback, a séance on a deserted beach is taking place during Halloween where Stanhope and Johnson organize a “celebration of the spirit of resurrection” as everyone chants “love and immortality”, while Cathrin (Sunny Batholomew), who is like “walking ice”, drops her top.  Then, in a rather confusing turn of events, Ann has a flashback within a flashback about her dead husband Tom.  In case it all gets a little too confusing for everyone, Detective McGuire provides some film-noirish narration to try and help keep things in check, but in a sloppy or purposely arty bit of sound editing, his narration occurs during a dialogue scene.  A truly delirious experience, FROZEN SCREAM is a labyrinthine assemblage of grand ideas made on a zero budget, and, as such, is a completely invigorating and unforgettable bit of independent horror cinema.  

In spite of their humble origins, both films look far better than any previous available versions on this Vinegar Syndrome Drive-In Collection disc.  Mastered in 2K from the original camera negative, The EXECUTIONER PART II looks incredibly sharp and crisp, and unlike the old edited VHS version, it retains the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and is also completely uncut.  As for FROZEN SCREAM, it was also mastered in 2K from the original 16mm camera negatives, but due to the limitations of the 16mm photography it’s still quite grainy, but infinitely more watchable than any previous VHS or bootleg DVD release, with a clarity not seen in those earlier, and far inferior, releases.  Other than the aforementioned James Bryan interview, “The Executioner’s Song”, the only other extra is a very entertaining trailer for The EXECUTIONER PART II.  Order this amazing double feature DVD from Vinegar Syndrome here 

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