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Talia Balsam in Crawlspace.

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Talia Balsam in Crawlspace.

Darkman

(Collector's Edition)

 

PRIOR to making the original Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi proved he had a perfect comic-book sensibility with his 1990 film Darkman, made and released between Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.

It's the story of a scientist who is turned into a vengeful monster by a crew of evil criminals, much like Wes Craven's Swamp Thing, except that Darkman is a dark, stylish, funny and inventive piece of genre filmmaking ... and Swamp Thing is not.

If the visual effects are comparatively crude compared to Spider-Man, Raimi's approach is pure, joyful, bombastic expressionism. One hates to admit that the only reason it wasn't a box office hit was because Raimi took an R-rated approach to the material, which explains why it was so much more successful on the home video market.

Abundant interviews are on view in the extras, including chats with Liam Neeson and unconventional leading lady Frances McDormand, who confesses she was living in L.A. in an apartment with both Raimi and her future husband Joel Coen when she was cast. McDormand comically suggests Raimi hired her so she could help make the rent. 4 out of 5 stars

 

Crawlspace

 

WHEN he wasn't making respectable movies for Werner Herzog (Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo), German actor Klaus Kinski made his share of exploitation fare in the '70s and '80s. This Shout Factory release of 1986's Crawlspace demonstrates that Kinski didn't just drive Herzog crazy, he drove other filmmakers crazy too.

Crawlspace director David Schmoeller made his own doc in 1999 -- plaintively titled Please Kill Mr. Kinski -- included on this disc, detailing the exploits of the eternally bitching thespian and a subsequent plot by an unnamed producer to simply do away with him.

The director postulates that the reason Kinski was so good at playing crazy was because he was crazy.

Undoubtedly this is true. But it does actually pay off in an otherwise tawdry and somewhat tasteless exploitation exercise. Kinski plays Karl Gunther, a retired doctor and the son of a Nazi war criminal who operates an apartment house populated by lovely young women. Through a series of convenient vents, he is able to spy on all his tenants. In his diary, he confesses he has inherited his father's "addiction to murder" and he occasionally will kill one of his tenants.

Talia Balsam (the daughter of Psycho's Martin Balsam) is the winsome new renter who realizes something is wrong with her creepy caretaker. (Not a big revelation: any given scene between Kinski and a woman oozes creepy perversity.) Schmoeller shows occasional signs of invention, mostly in his Psycho homage (the shots of Talia Balsam ascending stairs to her landlord's apartment deliberately recall Martin Balsam's fateful mounting of the stairs of the Bates family manor).

But mostly, this is tawdry stuff, although Kinski's presence really does liven things up. In the context of a predictable slasher, he brings the sense that anything can happen. 2 out of 5 stars

La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown)

 

THIS Italian spaghetti western from 1966 has proved elusive in its North American release, despite the fact it was actor Lee Van Cleef's immediate followup to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Possibly, the marketing had something to do with that. The ads at the time referred to Van Cleef as "Mr. Ugly," which was not only insulting but incorrect. (Van Cleef was "the Bad"; Eli Wallach was "the Ugly.")

Van Cleef plays Corbett, an unusual lawman who hunts down wanted criminals but doesn't bother to collect their bounties. Wealthy rancher Brokston (Walter Barnes) tells Corbett he will sponsor him to the senate. To show his gratitude, Corbett offers to track the accused murderer of a 12-year-old girl, a sketchy bandito named Cuchillo (Cuban-American cult star Tomas Milian).

The pursuit proves more difficult than usual. Corbett tracks him to a Mormon encampment and a remote ranch where all the ranch hands presumably do double duty sexually servicing the widowed proprietress (Nieves Navarro). When Corbett gets in trouble with the Mexican authorities, Brokston arrives and offers to help finally track him down, with the help of a small army of Mexican gunmen and his own German bodyguard Baron von Schulenberg (Gerard Herter deserves some kind of hall-of-fame status as a vivid spaghetti western villain). By this time, Corbett suspects Cuchillo may indeed be as innocent as he claims.

Director Sergio Sollima is no Sergio Leone as a stylist, but he does deliver a solid, respectable genre entry, showcasing Milian's charm and Van Cleef's icy cool. This Blu-ray edition gives it the respect it deserves, with a total of four discs, including a handsome 110-minute director's cut in Italian with English subtitles and a bonus CD featuring the music of the great, always inventive Ennio Morricone. 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2014 C14

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