On a dark and stormy night after a school football game, a teacher and three students take shelter at a cottage adjacent to a cemetery. If the cottage wasn’t creepy enough, the sole occupant owner surpassed the bar. She calls herself Miss Leslie, a middle aged woman with an ill-fated story of her friend and mother’s fiery demise from long past and a quirky penchant for making life-size female dolls that set inside an illuminating shrine. Though they feel uneasy about the creepy surroundings, the visitors stay and get cozy, especially with each other, but Miss Leslie has ulterior, deranged motives. Her dolls are not just lifelike, they once were vibrant lives of women Miss Leslie sorely wanted to inhabit their feminine confines of youth and beauty from over the years, but now they are an undecomposable shells, encase in Miss Leslie’s special doll making brew to timelessly capture their lovely physiques. They are also beautiful, yet painful reminders of her failed attempts to transfer her essence into their adolescent bodies.
Every so often you come across a film with a gigantically absurd hard shell cover with the gooey insides of eye-rolling cheesiness and you just have to ask yourself, how in the world did something like this ever come to fruition!? Yet, somehow, someway, these productions of an oddball variety always have an intense allure about them and end up being just one of the coolest rarities to grace the glazed-over irises. Joseph Prieto’s “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” is the epitome of this very phenomena. “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” is an exploitation, nearly softcore porn, horror with a deranged killers with severe mental issues that range from communication with dead to, what can be now construed as antiquated, complications of gender identity. One of the last directed films from Prieto, who also helmed “Shanty Tramp” and “Savages from Hell,” also penned the screenplay alongside longtime collaborator and producer Ralph Remy Jr. The script reads like an insatiable bedside thriller novel, an object of complete obsession through the entirety and well long after being completed; “Miss Leslie’s Dolls’” has a rich gothic lining, a strong sexual appetite, and a timely LGTB subject that involves debate on mental illness or inherited gender orientation.
Not many actors performed in drag. Sure, there was Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot” and there was even Anthony Perkins from “Psycho,” who some might go as far as saying that “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” might draw inspiration from with the whole mother fixation, but only a small faction of fans, especially in the genre, might know Salvador Ugarte. The Cuban born Ugarte has great poise as a woman imprisoned in a man’s body. Miss Leslie just isn’t a deranged killer in drag; the character has deep rooted issues stemming out of not only being a woman embodied incorrectly, but also seeded by an engulfing obsession with capturing beauty to obtain it for herself, an addition from a result of a permanent scarring left behind by Miss Leslie’s homicidal rampage in the character’s history. Ugarte has the mannerisms and the gait down so unerringly that’s the performance is downright creepy, but there was one aspect of womanhood that Ugarte’s masculinity couldn’t mask: his voice. The actor is horrendously dubbed, adding charm to the bizarre concept. Ugarte’s joined by “Little Laura and Big John’s” Terri Juston, Marchelle Bichette (“The Gruesome Twosome”), Kitty Lewis, and Charles Pitts of “Supervixens.”
Contrary to the above, “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” has some drawback. Though the characters might be entertaining and interesting, especially with the Bourbon obsessed and hot for teacher Roy and his terrible gangster accent or the fact that Ms. Alma Frost is a smoking hot, twenty-something year old prude teacher to her pupils who are practically the same age as her, they’re washed over with an aloof mentality, consequently looking past or just blatantly oblivious to Miss Leslie’s obvious male features, her inauspicious ramblings, and the fact she has a shrine of creepy and realistic dolls of women that fill the room with the smell like rot and death. Perhaps too busy running through the cemetery at night in skimpy bedroom garments. Yes, this does happen. On top of that, Miss Leslie harness of occult powers goes relatively unexplored, yet very much utilized as an important portion of the film near the last act. Despite being passively mentioned and rather undercut from more than most of the film, Miss Leslie’s occult mischief is plucked right from left field to further the enigmatic aurora of Prieto’s mystical exploitation.
Network proudly presents “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” on an UK 1080p Hi-Definition, region free Blu-ray home video, remastered from the original film elements once thought to be have been forever lost. The newly scanned transfer came from a surviving print and presented in the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The restoration included detailed grain management, the automated and manual removal of dirt and damage, and the correction of major color instability, warp, and density fluctuations. (In full disclosure, Network sent me a DVD-R screener and that is what the following critique is based off of) Though in some frames there flares up some instability, from my perspective, the first act and half really came out well with the vivid, yet natural, coloring. However, once inside Miss Leslie’s basement, woozy blotchy moments of Leslie fiddling around makes the particular scene a bit off putting. The stereo mono track is fair for the 1973 film that has it’s share of distortions and editing pop faux pas, but the dialogue is fiercely prominent, despite the inherent awfully laid dub track, and equally well balanced with ambient tracks. There were no bonus material on the release. Transvestitism horror is quite a rare experience that always has a lasting impression, cerebrally popping visuals of grim visions commingling with the blood, the viscera, and the other supplementary violence. “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” deserved this Blu-ray release and Network did right by Prieto’s obscure grindhouse feature that will sear into your skull.
After bearing witness the brutal suicide of her father, Mary undergoes family counselling as a result of being the cause of her father’s death with repetitive public accusations of molestation. The ill-equipped counselor suggests medical evaluation from a professional who beseeches the assistance of The Catholic Church when the determination concludes that Mary is suffering from severe Satanic possession. Directives from high positions in the Church service in waves three priests to perform the delicate exorcism; all of whom have conducted an exorcism under difficult and soul-exhausting situations. The irresolute and embattled priests field the call, blindly walking into Mary’s slithery persuasive possession state of soul-tormenting and death. The priests will tirelessly seek to have the beleaguered Mary exorcised of the nasty demon from within and have her tattered body come back to Jesus…or perhaps be personally delivered to the Devil.
Finally! American Guinea Pig: “The Song of Solomon” has been on my highly anticipated review material list for a very, very long time. Written, produced, and helmed by the founder and president of Unearthed Films himself, Stephen Biro has been more than widely known for years to promote and glorify gore in the shock-provoking films underneath his banner; a practice that has made his company a stable in the realm of horror aficionados. “The Song of Solomon” keeps the blood flowing….splattering, squirting, spurting, spilling, in fact! Whereas many of the Unearthed Films productions and distributions have a granular or avant garde stories, Biro, despite the confined and limited locations, pens an engrossing narrative with evocative, haunting, and surreal characters surged into a powerful and ageless tale that sordidly spanks “The Exorcist” like an irrefutably forgotten and spoiled rotten step-child. “The Song of Solomon” is that good and soars to the top in being one of this reviewer’s favorite Unearthed Films’ titles.
Jessica Cameron should just be handed a ton of awards for her performance as the possessed Mary. Cameron’s creative creepiness is unsurpassable and just oozes out of the character, zapping an icy chill down each disk of the spine whenever she uses the playful sing-songy voice of a snake’s fork tongue. As a whole, Cameron singlehandedly comes off overwhelming haunting and delivers a personality made up of nightmare material; a phenomenal performance that rivals, if not outright tops, Linda Blair’s Regan. There are moments when you think the 2003 “Truth or Dare” director and actress had post-production enhanced vocals to make Mary persuasive, enticing, and demonic, but only a slight vocal overlay on top is the only thin icing on the already devilish cake. It’s not as if Cameron didn’t have any competition on screen, either. Scott Gabbey, David E. McMahon (“Followers”), Angelcorpse’s Gene Palubicki (“American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock”), and Jim Van Bebber (“The Manson Family”) compliment the versus’ righteous, if not also flawed, challenger with immense passion for their respective roles of grief-stricken priests, plucked carefully by top Church officials to handle the exorcism. Maureen Pelamati, Josh Townsend, and Scott Alan Warner (“3-Headed Shark Attack”) co-star.
Production value must reign above the conventional indie fare and special effects owns much of that real estate. The man behind the special effects on such films as “Mohawk” and “Lung II,” Marcus Koch, has teamed up with “Bereavement” and “Murder-Set-Pieces'” Jerami Cruise to assemble some of best, yet refreshingly basic, gore effects seen recently. Regurgitation of internal organs, the compound splintering of bones, and even a Columbian necktie are the prime examples of what to expect from the unlimited imagination of the Koch and Cruise collaboration. Locations are simple and tight, leaving not much room for exploration of options for practical effects, but each scene is well thought out, choreographed, and designed for gruesome upshot that keeps true to Unearthed Films brand of filmmaking. Toss all that into a sack along with fellow colleague Gene Palubicki’s malevolently cacophony soundtrack and the outcome is a well-rounded horror film with extreme unapologetic values worth the time of day and night.
“The Song of Solomon,” an Unearthed Films production, lands onto Blu-ray distributed courtesy of MVD Visual. The 86 minute runtime film is presented in a High Definition 1080p widescreen format, 1.90:1 aspect ratio, on a single layer BD-50 disc. If you want gore, you got it with this particularly warm hued transfer really puts the devil in the details with grisly effects that could be hard to stomach. The English LCPM Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track caters with nice fidelity. Dialogue is clearly present amongst the Palubicki score and the ghastly ambience augments the visual viscosity of the gore. Bonus features include an audio commentary with Stephen Biro and Jessica Camera, another commentary with Biro and effects gurus Marcus Koch and Jerami Cruise, interviews with Jessica Cameron, Stephen Biro, Marcus Koch, Gene Palubiki, David McMahon, and director of photography Chris Helleke, a behind the scenes look, outtakes, and a photo gallery. Comparing Stephen Biro’s “The Song of Solomon” to William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” is like comparing apples to oranges as both films relish and thrive in their own atmospheres. However, “The Song of Solomon” stands firm as a powerful competitor that offers up a ravishingly foul and metaphysical entry into the genre realm of demonic possessions casted with raw talent.
In the year 2022, Special Forces solider, Captain Robbins, is court martialed for putting a bullet in the head of his commanding officer. After escaping two maximum security prisons and a record of rebellious activity, a corrupt and power hungry warden of the Lactivus prison ships Robbins off to an off shore island called Absolom, where prisoners can roam free with no chance of escape due to 24/7 surveillance by Satellite and rocket launcher armed helicopter gunships surrounding the island perimeter. Island prisoners separate into two factions: the Outsiders and the Insiders. Each with the respective camps, the lawless Outsiders overwhelm the Insider’s numbers by 6 to 1, leaving the small manned community in constant fear of attack and pillage by the Outsider’s merciless leader, Walter Marek. When the insiders learn than Robbins has faced Marek and lived, they take the former solider into their community, but Robbins sole desire is to escape off the condemning rock and with the help of a few good men from the Insiders’ camp, the chances of escape and survival are greater together as long as Marek and his band of starving cutthroats don’t seize the endangered community first.
“Escape from Absolom,” also known as simply “No Escape” in the U.S., is a Martin Campbell directed action film from 1994 that’s futuristic and violent, fun and thrilling, and kitschy without being too cheesy. Campbell, who went on to direct not one, but two, James Bond films, begins a base of epic action that’s toweringly ambitious and pulled off nicely with the stunts and the editing. Based off the Richard Herley novel “The Penal Coloney,” the script is penned by Michael Gaylin who puts pen to paper to scribe a playful, passively aggressive dialogue, but fun and energetic on a the same coy lines of other high visibility action films. Gaylin was able to conform to a story that has no dynamic with the opposite sex in one of the few films that exhibits a rare all male cast.
“Goodfella’s” star Ray Liotta finally got his time to shine as the butch and badass action hero that is Captain Robbins, a highly skilled special forces solider and killing machine whose pragmatic intentions, at first, are hard to read. The cockiness overtop a well-cloaked deadly skill set works to the advantage of the blue-eyed actor for New Jersey. Opposite Liotta is Stuart Wilson (“Hot Fuzz”) as Walter Marek, a 7-year island lifer with dreadlocks and nose bridge piercings to match his psychotic leadership. Wilson does psychotic just fine, but the look resembles John Travolta’s atrocious attire from Battlefield Earth. Lance Henriksen, One of the most recognizable legendary genre actors, has a more serene approach in being a mentor and the leadership figurehead of the Insiders camp when compared to conventionally eccentric, sometimes maniacal performances, but Henriksen has a mellow side to him that conveys are very affectionate kumbaya approach, but any personality compared to Stuart Wilson’s internal rampage would be a stark contrast. “Ghostbusters'” Ernie Hudson has his role as security office in the Insiders camp and the sole black man of the film, for obvious reasons, stands out, but Hudson just adapts to anything you put him in though the Michigan born tended to sway toward the thrilling fantasy/sci-fi genre in the height of his career. Rounding out the cast is Kevin Dillon (“The Blob” remake), Kevin J. O’Conner (“Lord of Illusions”), Don Henderson (“The Ghoul”), Ian McNeice (“Dune”), and Michael Lerner (“Maniac Cop 2”).
All things considered, “Escape from Absolom” is a torrent men-in-prison extravaganza that’s one part Sylvester Stallone “Judge Dredd,” one part Chuck Norris “Missing in Action,” and, as a whole, an endangered brand of droll entertainment. Speaking of Stallone, Ray Liotta did it first as a character who is an expert at escaping the inescapable maximum security penitentiaries and instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dave Bautista as contentious, yet supportive allies, the friendly, yet solidly statured Ernie Hudson and Lance Henriksen share Liotta’s Captain Robbin’s unquenchable lust for freedom, even if it to provide unsheathe exposition of the unethical corporate penal system practices. Far from being a perfect film and extremely blantant on a no underlying message, Martin Campbell undoubtedly has a fine tuned niche of capturing the casual eye with large scale action sequences and an affable character allure.
Umbrella Entertainment releases “Escape from Absolom” on a region-all Blu-ray, presented in 1080p, widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. The coloring is phenomenally remastered and stable compared to previous transfers. There are times when depth becomes two-dimensional or flat, skewing the picture noticeably, but the overall picture quality is spectacular in the vast amount of Australian landscapes and even in the night scenes that show hardly any enhancing, such as sharpening or contrast. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is laid out nicely with audible poise and precision balance. Dialogue is prominent while explosions have just the right amount of oomph under an exact LFE recipe. The release sports other language Dolby Digital audio tracks such as a German 2.0, Spanish 2.0, Italian 2.0, and a French 2.0. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Bonus material includes a two part making of featurette from around the production of the film with interviews with cast and crew, four TV spots, trailer, and a reversible cover. Runtime is 118 minutes. Martin Campbell’s “Escape from Absolom” is dystopian dynamite, explosive and aggressive with a flare for enjoyable banter amongst defined and diversified characters inhabiting an utopian island of mostly societal scum.
In the fight against pure evil, the Catholic church trains champions to battle against the forces of hell and all that is unholy. Father Jacob Vassey is one of those very champions. The man of the cloth who wields dual 9mm handguns and has a penchant for penancing through the act of self-righteous wrongdoing in the name of Church and of God. When an treacherously evil Archbishop summons a shadow builder to undo all of God’s creation on Earth, Father Vassey pursues the demon to the small town of Grand River in search for a hunted pure soul; the demon tracks down young Chris Hatcher whose been through a sign of God’s passion, the stigmata, and is the key to demon’s ultimate goal. Once the shadow builder has collected enough souls and has laid sacrifice to the boy, the demon will reverse the creation of God, humanity will cease to exist, and the world would be ripe for restructuring at the whim of one of hell’s most demented minions. Humanity’s last hope lies with Father Vassey, a local sheriff, Chris’s veterinarian aunt, and the town loon to bring forth light toward the prospect of a dark and gloomy apocalypse.
“Shadowbuilder” is the 1998 apocalyptic horror film from director Jamie Dixon, steering his sole major production from a high octane and progressive anecdotal script by “Iron Eagle IV” screenwriter Michael Stokes and produced by Imperial Entertainment, who delivered some great films like “The Bikini Carwash Company” and The Bikini Carwash Company II.” Based off the short story in the “Under the Sunset” collection by Bram Stoker (author of “Dracula”), “Shadowbuilder” expands, develops, and morbidly seduces around Stoker’s tale that doesn’t necessary implement a Universal Studio’s “The Mummy” like tale progression and design, telling of a weak, yet venomous creature feeding on souls or people in order to regain world destruction strength. Stokes script goes right into the action with Vassey’s hunt for the beguiled Archbishop and the way Vassey is introduced is absolute 1990’s gold: a priest armed with two handguns with laser sights. Studios don’t make films like this anymore! Rivals as one of those films that has a doppleganger, like “Deep Impact” and “Armaggeddon” that coincidentally came out the same year as “Shadowbuilder. “End of Days” is that doppleganger film as the two share unholy similarities of a citizen of hell on a mission to sacrifice a human for above ground dominance.
No actor could pull off properly the gun-toting and shrewd role of a haunted and troubled priest that is Father Jacob Vassey. No actor except Michael Rooker (“Henry: The Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “The Walking Dead”). Rooker’s gravel pit voice is inarguably his best trademark trait that nails extra tension into the substantially bleak and world-ending situation; a tone that carries enormous weight and Rooker’s natural vocal gift, along with his lip snarling, square chin and piss-offstare, earns the actor to be the well armed and dangerous man of the cloth. “Bruiser’s” Leslie Hope joins Rooker as the Veterinarian aunt and the film’s love interest, but not of Father Vassey. Instead, the love interest belongs to the local town sheriff, Sam Logan, played by Shawn Thompson. Hope and Thompson’s on-screen chemistry can’t seem to puncture through as it’s defined as back burner material, overshadow by Vassey’s unwavering pursuit of the demon and the frantic search for the boy, Kevin Zegers (“Dawn of the Dead” remake), through the muck of the shadow builder’s poisoning of the town upstanding morality and ethics. Rounding out the cast is Andrew Jackson as the shadow builder, Hardee T. Lindeham (“Survival of the Dead”), Catherine Bruhier, and genre vet Tony Todd (“Candyman”).
“Shadowbuilder” is by far a perfect horror film. Dixon, new to directing, dives into the infancy stages of CGI and, for the most part, the turnout pans out with the effects despite being slight crude around the edges. Stokes script puts story development right into the fast lane and doesn’t let off the gas so if you walk out of the room for a coke and return, you’ll miss something pivotal. The design works well to keep up the pace for a story that has a lot to tell and to not give the viewers a chance to piecemeal pick apart a teetering concept. One aspect that really tilts toward the negative is actually Tony Todd’s performance as the town crazy, a one-eyed Rastafarian named Evert Covey who is completely aware of the demon’s presence, but goes unexplained. Todd sells crazy, and sells it really well, but the lack of exposition into purpose plunders the character into outside the lines oblivion that begs the question, why is this character here? A guess would place Covey as a means to keep the lights running as he’s some sort of convivial, jerry-rigging mechanic.
MVD Visuals Rewind Collection label sports a special edition Blu-ray of Bram Stoker’s “Shadowbuilder.” The 1080p resolution is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Despite the the 1080p resolution that aims to bring a little more detail to the fold, the coloring on the transfer is quite faded with considerable noise that’s hard to ignore, but while the noise is underfoot it doesn’t necessarily cripple “Shadowbuilder’s” ominous and foreboding vehicle. The CGI looks better than expected being an early model from the millennial transition into more prominiment animation in the turn of the century. The English uncompressed 2.0 PCM sound track passes muster, leaving dialogue rightfully forefront and substantial ambience as support. Bonus features include a nifty poster insert, a visual effects tour, and a making of featurette with interviews that include with the director Jamie Dixon, screenwriter Michael Stokes, the demon himself, Andrew Jackson, and Tony Todd. Kevin Zegers has his own featurette, a commentary director Jamie Dixon, and the theatrical trailer alongside MVD trailers for other Rewind Collection films. Michael Rooker, Tony Todd, and a demon. A winning combination reamed with apocalyptic mayhem, destruction, and undiluted carnage and up on a pedestal with on the eclectic MVD Rewind Collection.
Ruthless mobsters crack down hard on barkeeps, strong arming their way into seizing every bar in town. When they mess with Jo Lee-Haywood, the too cocky gangsters messed with the wrong Southern gal as Jo turns out to be Jo Pickings, one of three dames of the notorious Pickings gang. Jo tries to abide by a straighten arrow inspired by her deceased husband and four kids, but crime tugs at her violent past, scraping the good from her clean off. With the help of her brother, Boone, and her sisters, Doris and May, Jo and her family of heavily armed outlaws aim to fight back against thugs and thieves in this modern day western.
“Pickings” is the freshman film of first time feature film producer, writer, and director Usher Morgan. The contemporary gritty western is a maelstrom of goliath turf wars that’s stylized with rotoscoping and other comic book fatigues to dress Morgan’s film as an aesthetically popping story with illustrative visuals, anomalies, and raw tooth violence. The clear cut message, a fairly popular thematic motif among westerns, is don’t mess with family, even if family has been through an estranged time, and though Morgan’s theme runs a fairly conventional line, the “Sin City”-esque overlay gives “Pickings” a strong double take. What’s an especially fun and unique concept is having one of the characters, Sam “Hollywood” Barone, be exhibited in black and white while everyone else is in color as if the character was pulled straight from a Humphrey Bogart classic.
Elyse Price headlines as Jo-Lee Haywood, a wife-mother scorned by notorious gangsters, but the tough as nails mother of four runs a tight-ship when it comes to her bar and to her family. Price doesn’t hold back, taking the gut-checking hits and delivering a twice as big response with a performance of contempt and revenge. Price is joined by Joel Bernard, the sole brother of the Pickens gang whose as tough as they come, especially when you’re the only boy with three sisters. Bernard does the job matching Price’s hard nose character with his own more subtle version. The two other sisters, Doris and May played by Michelle Holland and Lynne Jordan, barely scratch the surface in an appearance that makes their characters difficult to absorb. Aside from Jo Lee-Haywood, the only other character with a significant character arc is her daughter Scarlet Lee-Haywood filled in by Katie Vincent. Vincent’s softens up against her mother’s violence despite being a passive witness to her cornered brutality, but can adhere to the akin familiarities of her family’s long and violent history. The cast rounds out with Yaron Urbas, who in my opinion is a decent mobster, Michael Gentile, and Emil Ferzola.
“Pickings” doesn’t come without problems and one of the problems is is the story concludes on a really too clean note. The inner monologuing exposition of Jo Lee-Haywood conveying her start-to-finish tale of her involvement with the three dames, Doris, May, and Jo, is a good visual like the rest of the Morgan’s film, but is just that, a good visual, and doesn’t carry the weight of suspense and becomes even more diluted when Doris and May have little interaction with Jo and barely any screen time at all to put the oomph into conveying their badassness. Aside from being obvious and telling, the gun blazing finale is also a bit underwhelming and disappointing, chocking everything to a one sided victory without any, or the hope of any, dire loss to compensate just feels empty and, again, too clean for comfort.
Courtesy of Dark Passage Films comes “Pickings” onto DVD and Blu-ray home video. The DVD is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio that capture the neo-noir facets of shadowing figures and haunting mysteries. Morgan’s film doesn’t necessary pop with color, but that’s particularly the nature of the genre. Aside from that, no real issue with the DVD transfer. The audio is a stereo option that has an ample dialogue track and a stocky ambient accompaniment. Katie Vincent’s bootlickin’ acoustical score never wavers, cracks, or looses range. Extras include deleted scenes, filmmakers’ commentary, “The Mop” a Pickings short, a behind the scenes featurette, and a spoof reel during the end credits. Loaded with female empowerment, “Pickings” is a violent crime drama with neo-noir battle garments of two warring clans ready to get along like the Hatfields and McCoys, but the undercutting finale puts a sharp spur in one’s couch melding backside, leaving much to be desired from a women scorned vendetta.