By Alan Jones
Happy 10 years of Arrow Video!
To commemorate our first decade on this planet, we’ve taken out our little black book and sat down with some of the best and brightest in the world of cult to talk about their personal histories with Arrow Video, and, of course their top picks from the catalogue.
Kickstarting this series we have Alan Jones. The fabulous film critic whose voice has graced many an Arrow Video commentary track, one of the curators and co-founders of the UK’s biggest genre film festival – Arrow Video FrightFest and a pioneer in all things horror (who was the first to coin the term Splat Pack!)
So sit back, relax and let Alan take you on his journey of Arrow…
A: Do you remember the first Arrow Video release you took notice of?
AJ: It was STREET TRASH in 2010. I had championed Jim Muro’s 1987 exploitation classic through my long-running film review column in ‘Starburst’ magazine. But because it was released on video only it didn’t make quite the mark I was hoping for. While it did win some festival exposure it sadly disappeared pretty quickly for something I called “THE EVIL DEAD (with winos)”! So it was fantastic when Arrow released it on DVD in 2010 as it gave me the perfect opportunity to reappraise it and see if my original opinion was correct. Which it was of course! The story still resonated with sleaze pizzazz – a Queens liquor store owner selling off a crate of poisonous booze found in the back of his cellar to local derelicts – and the oozing gore effects were as brilliant as I remembered. My one major observation concerned Muro himself whom I said would go far in the film industry due to his camera techniques and Steadicam prowess. And that’s exactly what he did as the future go-to camera operator for James Cameron, Michael Mann and Oliver Stone before helming such classic television series as SOUTHLAND and LONGMIRE. Arrow’s ability to choose the ‘right’ movies to bring back to the public’s attention was spot on in this instance.
A: What do you think makes high quality home entertainment important in this day and age?
AJ: There are so many ways to consume the visual image today. Cinema, streaming, VOD… you name it. In the not too distant past we could only dream of pristine images, high quality sound, wonderful presentation – in the correct ratios! – and a quiet, non-device atmosphere. Now that perfect symmetry can be achieved at home on ever-bigger TV screens and with better quality visuals without anyone blocking the view or being disruptive. For a growing, discerning audience, home viewing really is the ideal as it’s less of an effort, there are no queues and you can pick the time you want to relax into your latest purchase that fits in with your schedule. You can stop, play, pause and rewind a favourite scene anytime you want. You can laugh or cry to your heart’s content and you can choose your viewing companion and, let’s face it, eat whatever snacks too.
Look, while I still think the shared communal cinema experience is the optimum one, new technology must be embraced and if that means making people aware of the power of film outside a multiplex then so be it. We get enjoyment from book reading and music listening, both being usually solo experiences, why shouldn’t film watching be the same? Especially when there is such a wide variety of product with incisive and informative Extras that can be equally as entertaining as the main feature.
A: How do you think the horror/cult movie landscape has changed over the last 10 years?
AJ: Enormously, thanks to film festivals like FrightFest and home entertainment distributors like Arrow. There was a time when the window of opportunity to see a certain cult item or re-release of a past classic was limited to the National Film Theatre or some far-flung repertory cinema, the much-missed Scala in King’s Cross being the most obvious example. But then came home video and a young audience grew up with the accessibility older genre fans never had. This meant the rise of the fanboy – and a growing legion of fangirls – who crammed a lifetime of genre knowledge into years instead of decades. Many of those turned into filmmakers themselves who would create homages or specifically tailored inspirations for the next ultra-savvy generation. Then came the craving for even more of their new jam, a desire that FrightFest filled with its ambitious line-ups of movies from all over the world that might not ever receive a major release. Or those straight to DVD items that deserved to be seen on the big screen.
And then came the DVD Extra revolution, where every detail every fan could possibly wish to know was imparted by the talents behind, and in front of, the camera. Now social media fuels the want-to-see-factor of the good, the bad and the obscure to such an extent that there is an in-built audience for practically every movie being made in the studio, on location, or in your best friend’s garage. It is such an exciting time for horror fans to be alive as you can now choose from that Big Screen experience and tweeting your opinion to the stars to buying the movie you’ve just watched and getting it autographed by the visiting talent. Accessibility and Availability are the two key words that have changed the horror landscape over the last decade.
A: Out of the last 10 years since the birth of Arrow Video, would be your top 10 desert island picks?
- THE CAT O’NINE TAILS
- SAVAGE STREETS
- COMBAT SHOCK
- BLOOD AND BLACK LACE
- BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
- BRAIN DAMAGE
- SHOCK TREATMENT
- DAVE MADE A MAZE
A: What makes these 10 stand out in your view?
- THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (1971): I’ve done quite a few DVD commentaries for Arrow over the years, mainly the giallo titles, and because of my four-decade association with Dario Argento, many of his masterworks. I do so enjoy doing them too and the fact that Arrow do an amazing packaging job with fabulous limited edition content Extras like these is a given. But one of my favourite commentaries (once more with my great friend and fellow critic Kim Newman) was for Dario’s sophomore feature after his groundbreaking game-changer THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1971). Underappreciated at the time, even by Dario himself who never had a kind word to say about the CAT for years, a situation that has happily changed, it’s the one commentary I can listen to repeatedly because I feel we got in exactly the right zone to mine every scrap of fact, detail and information about this stylish suspense classic. From the tweets I constantly receive about it, many Argento fans have agreed.
- SAVAGE STREETS (1984): I first saw this grindhouse shocker at the American Film Market in 1984 in Los Angeles. As I walked out of the screening, reeling with enthusiasm, I bumped into its star, Linda Blair, who was at the cinema to meet and greet would-be international distributors. I blurted out that her role as Brenda, a teen vigilante taking revenge on the thugs who raped her disabled sister, was her best since THE EXORCIST. Her bemused deference will always remain with me! And Arrow’s 2011 DVD release proved that I wasn’t too far off the mark either. Yes, director Danny Steinmann’s extreme DEATH WISH was vicious, vulgar and violent but it was also kinetic, stylish and full of lip-smacking awareness. In other words, an Exploitation Extravaganza – with the accent definitely on the Extra! Being able to re-evaluate such under-the-radar titles as this Disco-brawling, catfight-tastic, hilarious locker-room-language classic was a real treat.
- COMBAT SHOCK (1986): Included here for purely personal reasons, this underground guilty pleasure about a Vietnam veteran plagued by battle nightmares and freaked out by his mutant son is PLATOON meets ERASERHEAD in a surreally grimy universe. My ‘Shock Xpress’ review of Buddy Giovinazzo’s initial Troma release touched the director so much, he contacted me personally, we met up in New York, realized we shared the same birthday, goals and ambitions, and he has remained one of my best friends ever since. And now he’s living and working in Berlin, I see him all the time. So watching COMBAT SHOCK is my ‘family album’ where I relive all our personally shared memories through its stark imagery.
- SISTERS (1973): Another favourite director is Brian De Palma. And yes, I even liked his latest movie DOMINO so there! In my role as London Correspondent for the keynote American magazine ‘Cinefantastique’, one of my first journalistic assignments was to interview him after making his breakthrough horror CARRIE. The events surrounding our interview remain the reason he still remembers me after all these years as I was ignominiously thrown into the back of his limousine heading to Heathrow Airport because of time pressures. However a motorway crash caused us to be held up in traffic for four hours, and throughout that entire delay I asked him everything I ever wanted to know about his career. Alongside my STAR WARS interviews, that De Palma in-depth one is my most reprinted of all both in books and journals. Naturally SISTERS was high on the list because I had seen it on my first trip to Hollywood way before it arrived in the UK as BLOOD SISTERS and double-billed with THE BEAST MUST DIE. De Palma’s deft balance between sinister Hitchcock homage and OTT stylish satire has always been the reason I adore his work. His brain-twisted Siamese twin SISTERS story set that grand design template in stone and like the great Alfred’s canon I can revisit De Palma’s back catalogue on a daily basis if necessary.
- BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964): This was the first X horror movie I saw and it is the reason why I became a worshipper at the altar of director Mario Bava and a die-hard Italian genre fan. This directional shocker, the forerunner for all the gialli to come, is another Arrow DVD I watch over and over again. It never gets old, you always see something new in its sublime craft and artful aesthetic and it’s as thrilling today as the first time I saw it (at the Essoldo, Portsmouth) and reveled in its lurid, fever dream visuals, erotically charged elegance and homicidal cruelties. The potent plot about fashion models being violently murdered by a masked slasher for a diary containing incriminating scandal was an ahead-of-its-time psycho-chiller and I recall with affection my introduction to it at FrightFest Glasgow in 2015, in front of a rapt audience to help promote the upcoming Arrow release. I sadly never met Mario Bava, but I am delighted to know his son, Lamberto, and grandson, Roy, who allowed me to rifle through their personal collections of his storyboards and personal photos. An undisputed highlight of my life.
- BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970): Another Arrow 2016 release I never tire of watching. Who could resist Russ Meyer’s brilliant all-time cult classic rags to bitches saga about an all-female rock band making it big in the Hollywood cesspits of sex, drugs and extreme Manson-esque behaviour? Outrageously campy, soap opera trashy and brutally violent, it’s King Leer’s best movie and looks as bright and breezy as ever, mainly thanks to Meyer’s revolutionary quick-editing methods that the film industry only caught up with decades later. I had many dealings with Meyer during my career. I first met him with exploitation distributor pioneer Anthony Balch who released his mid 1970s sextravaganzas SUPERVIXENS and UP! And then I auditioned for him, with Kitten Natividad, for a role in WHO KILLED BAMBI? before he was fired and it turned into THE GREAT ROCK AND ROLL SWINDLE, with my part cut down to virtually nothing. Heigh-ho, I still at least get a wonderful ‘And introducing Alan Jones’ credit. Meyer was a total blast and everything big, bold and boisterous about him can be divined in this ultimate tinsel-town put-on.
- MATINEE (1993): Ever since becoming a genre critic and journalist I’ve been collecting tie-ins and promotional items, and for the past year I’ve been tweeting my collection to enormous fan response. So naturally Joe Dante’s tender paean to Atom Age Monster flicks and tribute to gimmick king William Castle struck every nostalgic chord. Castle was the Abominable Showman who issued insurance polices covering death by fright in MACABRE, dragged plastic skeletons through auditoriums for THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and wired up seats for mild electric shocks in THE TINGLER. And Dante’s superb satire of cultural and social mores during the Cold War era, and especially the affectionate black-and-white creature feature footage ‘Mant’ – in ‘Atomo-Vision’ and ‘Rumble-Rama’- is a sheer buff-fest delight. Every time I watch MATINEE it takes me back to a time where Bert I Gordon ruled the B movie roost, Elvis was on the jukebox and an appearance by the late lamented Corman mainstay Dick Miller meant the universe was in proper balance. All present and correct in this wonderful 2016 Arrow release.
- BRAIN DAMAGE (1988): Arrow’s focus on the quirky and off-beat cult movie gives the best opportunity to catch up with those whispered-about minor gems. One such item was this quite unique item from indie auteur Frank Henenlotter, the brain-damaged brains behind the micro-budgeted fave BASKET CASE. This one was even more perverse and I’ll never forget being invited by producer Edgar Ievins to Manhattan to cover the location filming – in a disused warehouse just around the corner from Madison Square Gardens, ahhh, the glamour! – where I spent an amazing couple of days witnessing the cast and crew capturing the comedy horror adventures of a pet parasite promising instant euphoria from hallucinogenic injections for fresh brain food in return. Henenlotter was quite a character back then, difficult, defensive and loath to discuss his work, and my reports on the movie reflected that. So it was nice to see how much the publicity shy director had mellowed from the Blu-ray extras and he did sort of apologize for being so brittle towards journalists – not just me – when we invited him over to show his last feature BAD BIOLOGY at FrightFest in 2008.
- SHOCK TREATMENT (1981): Who doesn’t love THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW? So when I was given the opportunity to interview creator Richard O’Brien on the equal – “It’s not a sequel or a prequel” was the first thing he said to me – how could I refuse the chance to meet an icon. For me personally SHOCK TREATMENT is far better than it had a right to be considering the monumental cultural impact ROCKY HORROR made. The soundtrack is absolutely ace – ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Me of Me’ and ‘Lullaby’ are outstanding songs, the cast is fabulous – Jessica Harper going back to her pre-SUSPIRIA Broadway roots and Barry Humphries is a total joy, and the whole Reality TV thrust incredibly prescient. I so remember at the time 20th Century Fox desperately trying to mint an instant cult classic, something you can’t do, and a few people dressed up in assorted characters at the London premiere, ready for a Midnight Movie longevity that sadly never materialized. But while it did lie dusty and unloved for many years, I knew its time would eventually come and the Extras package on the 2017 Arrow release is everything an original fan like myself could wish for.
- DAVE MADE A MAZE (2017): The nature of the film industry today means so many movies are made and each try and vie for as much recognition and profile as possible to get noticed. Many slip through the cracks and its only when a canny distributor like Arrow sees their worth they make a break-through. Such was the case with director Bill Watterson’s miniature marvel that is just so uniquely inventive, goofy with its origami gore and a complete joy to watch. Assembling 30,000 square feet of cardboard to build full-scale sets for his fantastical maze shows a commitment way beyond the call of duty and I was upset FrightFest couldn’t include it in their 2017 edition because it had been submitted far too late in the line-up proceedings. I did suggest it to other fantasy festivals though who happily took up the baton and Watterson did thank me for that when I eventually met him at the Strasbourg Fantasy Festival. Arrow’s top-notch release meant it would also find the devoted audience it so richly deserved away from the festival circuit and into their hearts as one of the genuinely offbeat slacker comedies of all time.
© 2019 by Alan Jones. All rights reserved.
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