'First Purge' tackles racism

It may be slightly early for Halloween, but a bunch of horror films have just been released.
By Tom Von Malder | Oct 08, 2018
Photo by: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Lex Scott Davis and Jovian Wade play endangered siblings in "The First Purge."

Owls Head — The First Purge (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 97 min.). The first three "Purge" films tried to balance violence is bad with exploiting violence. In this prequel, there is violence again, but the racism behind it is more upfront and actually mirrors real-life events. James DeMonaco, writer and director of the first three films, again wrote the script, but turned over direction to Gerard McMurray. The film has direct echoes of the  2017 white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia and the Charleston church massacre in North Carolina.

The Purge, 12 hours in which most violence is legal, began as a theory put forth by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), a behavioral scientist. Although the film never makes clear why Updale thought something like the Purge was necessary, the New Founding Fathers of America and their President Bracken run with the idea of The Purge, on the surface hoping to wipe out nearly all crime the rest of the year, but in reality hiring mercenaries -- dressed in Klan gear and Nazi-like uniforms -- to perform class warfare. Chosen as the test site is New York's Staten Island, because it could be easily isolated and because of its mostly African American and Spanish population. This political shift may be because this is the first Purge film of the Donald Trump Presidency, where certainly subtlety has been thrown out the window. Also interesting is that Staten Islanders are paid $5,000 to stay on the island during the Purge and participants will be paid even more for acts of violence.

The film keys on Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a street activist, and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who has just started selling drugs on the street for Dmitri (Y'Lan Noel), someone Nya used to hang around. Before the Purge night is over, Dmitri will have his own political awakening. Things come to a head in the apartment building where Nya and Isaiah live, as the mercenaries are sweeping through the building, going floor to floor and killing everyone. As Nya and friends help barricade her 19th floor apartment, Dmitri engages the mercenaries in combat. The second half of the film is an improvement.

Extras include one deleted scene (1:47) that indicates a different ending for Skeletor, the character that has a beef with Isaiah; a brief making-of featurette (4:57); a look at the action (1:24); and a look at the masks (1:22), which includes a teeth mask (hey, the new season of "Doctor Who" used that one as well) and a "black face" mask. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Tales from the Hood 2 (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 110 min.). This is a very inconsistent anthology film, made up of four stories, stitched together by a ridiculous premise. That premise is that Mr. Simms (Keith David) is being paid to tell stories to a self-learning, new model of police robot, developed by Dumas Beach Industries. The clueless, sexually aggressive towards women Beach (Bill Martin Williams) acts as if his first name is missing two letters: a "b" in the middle and another "s" on the end, because he truly is one.

The original "Tales From the Hood" came out in 1995 and also was written and directed by Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott, and executive produced by Spike Lee. The tales Simms tells are about lust, greed, pride and politics and involved demonic dolls, a possessed fake psychic, vengeful vixens and historical ghosts. The writer-directors fill their tales with lots of African-American history -- some bad, like the racist toys of "Good Golly," and some good, like the historical ghosts who urge an African-American to abandon his support for a racist gubernatorial candidate who is closing down African-American voting precincts.

"Good Golly" features the Museum of Negrosity, into which a white girl, her brother and an African-American female friend come to buy or steal  a Golliwog doll. One doll turns giant and mayhem ensues. Be warned there is an icky birthing scene. The segment I enjoyed best has to deal with a fake psychic  (Bryan Batt as John Lloyd) who actually becomes possessed by all the victims of the African-American gangsters who force him to contact someone they just killed to learn where he hid $5 million. (Interestingly, before he dies, the man, an ex-pimp, said he planned to use the money to open a school and give scholarships to disadvantaged youths. In the third story, Tinder use leads two horn dogs, who like to drug their dates, to a couple of vampires. Finally, two time periods merged as the ghost of Emmett Till (Christopher Paul Horne), a historic figure killed in 1955 for whistling at a white woman, tries to pull support from a racist gubernatorial candidate.

The film sometimes suffers from bad special effects and the differences in tone jar, but it is entertaining enough. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2.5 stars

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (Korea, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 94 min.). Taking off on CNN actually naming the Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital one of the seven freakiest places on the planet (Oct. 31, 2012), the film follows the efforts and online broadcast of the Horror Times Terror Squad to do a show from inside the asylum, which opened in May 1961 and closed in October 1079 after a series of mass patient suicides. According to the film, the asylum was build on land where Japanese invaders killed dozens of Korean resisters.

The team of three guys and three women -- the women chosen by lottery to participate -- sneak in and began broadcasting. Trying to get 1 million viewers, the leader (Ha-Joon Wi as Ha-joon) has arranged for two fake disturbances, but then the horror turns all too real. It actually is funny when one of the guys freaks out over a wet wig, and a couple of times the participants overly panic. One very creepy scene involves a face. There are a lot of faces in the film, actually, as the five who go into the asylum all wear Go-Pro cameras strapped to their chests and aimed at their faces. The film probably spends too much time getting to the asylum, what with the six first meeting and then have a celebratory dinner. It is almost all Go-Pro, hand-held or drone camera footage, putting the film in the found footage category, like "the Blair Witch Project," which it momentarily recalls at one point. There are no extras. Grade: film 2.5 stars

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, Scream Factory, 2 Blu-rays, R/R, 117/102 min.). "The Exorcist," which I saw in the theater during its original run, is one of the creepiest films I have ever seen. It sill chills me while watching on DVD. Director John Boorman's sequel -- in the audio commentary he says he found the original book by William Peter Blatty to be "abhorrent" -- looks to be a project that went awry. In her bonus interview, actress Linda Blair, who here reprises her role of Regan MacNeil, the child possessed by the demon Pazuzu, says the original script was very good, but it was rewritten five times and "not what we shot." Much of the rewrites were by Boorman and his friend, second unit director Rospo Pallenberg.

Boorman had made the Best Picture Oscar-nominated "Deliverance" four years earlier -- but he also made the weird "Zardoz" with Sean Connery in-between -- and wanted Jon Voigt from that film to star here, but Voigt balked and the studio insisted on Richard Burton to play Father Philip Lamont, sent by the Vatican to investigate the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow seen in flashbacks) four years earlier, when the demon was supposedly driven out of Regan. (Burton, by the way, would be nominated for his seventh and final Oscar for starring in "Equus" this same year. Shockingly, Burton never won an Oscar.) The topnotch cast also includes Louise Fletcher ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") as Dr. Gene Tuskin, who is trying to help Regan recover her memories so they can be dealt with; Paul Henreid ("Casablanca") as Cardinal Jaros; James Earl Jones ("Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope" that same year) as Kokumo, an African who dealt with Pazuzu in the past and knew Father Merrin; and Ned Beatty ("Superman" in 1978) as pilot Edwards.

A central conceit of the film is some mumbo- jumbo about synchronized hypnosis, allowing one individual to enter the memories of another. There also is mention of French scholar and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who believed mankind was evolving toward the Omega Point, a shared consciousness of the universe. The film starts slowly and never recovers, with the hypnotism stuff laughable. Along the way, Father Lamont tracks down Kokumo in Africa, but now he is a scientist studying locusts instead of a powerful medicine man. Eventually the scene shifts from New York City -- where Regan bizarrely does a lot of tap dancing in school -- back to Georgetown, where temptation is high for Father Lamont and a swarm of locusts destroy Regan's mother's house.

The set comes with both the original cut and the shorter original home video cut (this review is of the longer original cut), both in new 2K scans from the original film elements. I have been told the original home video cut is actually the international cut, with reworked opening scenes, other scenes trimmed or reordered, alternate takes and alternate music used, and a different ending that alters the fate of Father Lamont. The longer cut has an interesting new audio commentary by director Boorman, who seldom refers to what is directly going on in the film. There also is a new audio commentary by special project consultant Scott Michael Bosco. Mike White, The Projection Booth Blog writer, does commentary on the shorter cut, delving into the troubled production. The new interview with Blair tells how she hated taking tap dance lessons and how Burton used to read lines off cue cards (19:16). There also is a new interview with editor Tom Priestly that is kind of boring (6:57). Five photo galleries complete the extras. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1993, Well Go USA, Blu-ray, R, 92 min.). The "Phantasm" films are all about the big baddie: Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man, who uses metallic orbs with various weapons inside and a mini-army of dwarf monsters dressed in cowls. There really is not much else. The budgets appear very low -- even lower for the next film (see below) -- and the acting, other than by Scrimm, leaves a lot to desire. Particularly bad is A. Michael Baldwin as Mike, whom The Tall Man is constantly after. Mike has a brother (Bill Thornbury as Jody) who died in a car wreck 10 years ago, but keeps popping up from apparently inside one of the orbs. The last main character is the brothers' friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), who helps in the battle against The Tall Man.

The film was made 15 years after the original, with the same cast, but obviously Baldwin had aged a lot. The film opens with a 3-minute recap and then picks up where the last film left off. There is a car wreck, dwarves in monk cowls and Reggie forestalls The Tall Man with a grenade. After the disgusting death of a nurse, Jody appears with a warning. Reggie , hunting for Mike, pulls into a deserted strip mall, where he is mugged by a women and two men, who refuse to stay dead for the rest of the film. At a big ol' house, Reggie encounters young Timmy, who joins his quest.

There is a silly bit with hands that turn into monsters, but the film does turn creepy in the last half-hour at The Tall Man's mortuary. The ending is open-ended. Bonus features include audio commentary by Scrimm and Baldwin; behind-the-scenes looks (8:52); and an 11-second deleted scene. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 2 stars

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998, Well Go USA, Blu-ray, R, 90 min.). The fourth film in the five-film franchise picks up right where the last one ended -- again. Again it starts with a visual recap of what has gone before. The film's budget appears to be $10,000 as both old scenes and previously deleted scenes are used to pad the film as flashbacks. Among the latter is an infamous "hanging tree" scene. The cast remains the same, with one female addition (again giving Reggie someone to attempt to seduce). A. Michael Baldwin, as Mike, does an even worse acting job -- where's any emotion? -- and dead brother Jody (Bill Thorbury) keeps popping up. Reggie (Reggie Bannister) again is on the hunt for Mike and once more gets a mouthful of yellow glop.

The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) has taken over the hearse that Mike is driving -- the first self-driving vehicle? -- and they end up in Death Valley. (Weirdly, Mike arrives with rocks, hills all around, but wakes up to a wide open plain.) He then starts traveling in time and to different dimensions through metal posts that stick up. In one dimension, Scrimm plays a nice incarnation of The Tall Man, one Jebediah Morningside who ends up creating the travel method. I find the mythology murky, but apparently The Tall Man is trying to build an army and wants to transform Mike.

There is an audio commentary by writer-director-producer Don Coscarelli (he also did the earlier films), whose young daughter played several of the dwarves who attack Reggie, and actors Bannister and Scrimm. Additionally, there is behind-the-scenes footage (10:30). Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.25 stars

Watch the Sky (Breaking Glass DVD, NR, 87 min.). There is more mystery than horror in this film, which actually features aliens, albeit briefly. (The box covers shows aliens, so I am not spoiling anything.) The film is about young Shawn Neary (Mike Muir) launching a space shuttle toy with a camera 20 miles into space via balloon. He is helped by his brother (Karson Kern as Michael), home for the weekend from college. Their father is the sheriff (producer Jed Sura as John). Their mother (Miracle Laurie as Laura in flashbacks) died three years ago and Shawn resents his father's new live-in girlfriend (producer Renee O'Connor as Shannon). The family is rounded out by younger sister Emily (Iris Sura).

While the boys have gone off to do the science project without telling their father, Sheriff John is called to investigate the death of dozens of cattle on many ranches and the disappearance of Ted (Mike Muscat) by what the audience knows is an alien. Ted's wife (Carol Mansell as Martha) also was in the truck and now has radiation sickness.

Kern and Muir work well together as brothers. While no big production, the film's story had me wanting more. The ending begs for a sequel. The writer-director is Alexander Murillo.The only bonus feature is a photo gallery (2:49). Grade: film 2.5 stars

TV releases

American Horror Story: Cult -- The Complete Seventh Season (20th Century Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 509 min.). This was a good season of the show, using the election of Donald Trump as president as the jumping off point. Sarah Paulson plays Ally Mayfair-Richards, a Michigan woman who, despite being plagued by phobias, tries to find happiness running a restaurant with her chef wife (Alison Pill) and son. However, her family and grip on sanity are threatened by the arrival of politically-motivated cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), who actually is planning a mass murder. In addition to political satire, the show works in clown suits and a newly arrived neighboring couple that just might not be that respectable. The set includes all 11 episodes and  FX promo spots. Grade: season 3.5 stars

The Gifted: The Complete First Season (20th Century Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 569 min.). Set within Marvel Comics'  "X-Men" universe, the series is about a suburban couple who suddenly discover their two children have mutant powers. The father (Stephen Moyer of HBO's "True Blood" as Reed Strucker) actually is in charge of a government agency that tracks down mutants. Amy Acker plays wife Kate, while the children are Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White). Lauren has known about her power for a while, but Andy's comes on unexpectedly and causes a commotion at school.

The family has to go on the run and they connect with the underground network of mutants, many of whom are funneled into Mexico. Most interesting is watching the children develop their powers and the other powers the mutants they meet have. The set includes all 13 episodes. Season two is underway on Fox. Grade: season 3 stars

Madam Secretary: Season 4 (CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 15 hours 49 min.). One of my favorite shows, "Madam Secretary" stars Tea Leoni as U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, who raises a family of three children with her husband (Tim Daly of TV's "Wings" as Henry McCord), a theology professor turned intelligence operative. Elizabeth herself is a former CIA analyst. She works for President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) and often butts heads with his chief of staff (Zelijko Ivanek as Russell Jackson).

This season, the McCord's daughter Alison moves away to college and son Jason falls in love. In an ongoing story, Dmitri, a former Russian soldier, becomes a CIA operative under Henry, and later starts dating older McCord daughter , Stevie. Among the crises that Elizabeth has to face are arranging a cease fire in Libya, a Lebanese refugee camp that needs electric power, a human trafficking summit in Kyrgyzstan, a treaty to eliminate land mines, the Bulgarian embassy is attacked by a sound-wave weapon and Russia may have launched a first-strike nuclear attack. Season 5 began Sunday, with guest stints by former secretaries of state Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell playing themselves. (Clinton also recently was on "Will and Grace.") Grade: season 3.5 stars

9-1-1: The Complete Season One (20th Century Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 437 min.). This is the show that Connie Britton left "Nashville" for. The new procedural from creators Ryan Murphy ("Glee," "The Assassination of Gianni Versace"), Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear ("American Horror Story") explores the high-pressure experiences of police officers, paramedics and firefighters who face frightening and shocking situations. The show also stars Angela Bassett and Peter Krause. The set includes all 10 episodes. Season two has begun airing Mondays on Fox.

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