Twilight Time Presents: Hard Pills to Swallow and Hard Acts to Follow

From tales of vengeance to yarns of violence, this quintet of feature films shows some great men who are truly down on their luck.
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At some point or another in life, we've experienced something that can be best summed up as being that of a hard pill to swallow. Likewise, we have seen at least one thing within our own lifespans that we can safely label as being a hard act to follow. Well, for their September 2015 line-up of Blu-ray exclusives, Twilight Time has somehow managed to wrangle up films that fall under both of those two categories, be it one or the other separately, or ‒ in the rare instance ‒ both. Here, we bear witness to both life and death (but mostly death) in these five dramas (mostly from the '80s, so yay) helming from the likes of Neil Jordan, James Foley, Robert Aldrich, John Huston, and J. Lee Thompson.

We begin with Neil Jordan's Angel from 1982. While my initial (fleeting) bit of glee dematerialized once I noted that this Angel was not the 1984 New World Pictures sexploitation cult classic of the same name, one cannot dispute Neil Jordan's debut into the foray of film. One could also (theoretically) not argue the exploitation angle of this Angel film (which was actually released in the US the same year as the other Angel, albeit under the new title Danny Boy) , as Jordan's art paints a less-than-pretty picture that is somewhat similar to the gritty revenge movies titles like The Bride Wore Black only helped pave the way for. Except that it is decidedly Irish all across the board. Here, the great Stephen Rea stars as Danny, a very talented saxophone player of a meager lounge act (and since this film is set in the early '80s and in same country that spawned U2, expect lots of gaudiness) who has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time one evening after a show.

After witnessing the murder of both his manager as well as a young deaf-mute woman (top-billed Veronica Quilligan) whom he shared a brief cosmic connection with, Danny slowly starts to crumble inside before he starts to seek out the men who committed the crime. But in a much subtler fashion than its violent American counterparts, of course. Honor Heffernan is the lead singer of the group most audiences will find extremely hard to swallow (think of your average Eurovision Song Contest entry, only without any talent), Alan Devlin is most definitely not the guy playing the drums as the (hard) act's drummer, and the wonderful Ray McAnally is the very wise policeman who may or may not know what our Angel of Music-cum-Angel of Death is up to. Twilight Time brings the oft-bizarre Irish underground tale (which was co-produced by John Boorman, who had wanted Liam Neeson to play the lead) to Blu-ray courtesy Protagonist Pictures in a stellar presentation with DTS-HD MA 2.0 with an isolated score and effects track (also in DTS-HD MA 2.0) as its sole special feature.

Gritty vengeance and just plain bad people in general also play well into the premise of our next title, the very hard to swallow (and follow) 1986 crime drama At Close Range from director James Foley. Having been foiled at destroying Silicon Valley the previous year by a quinquagenarian British spy, Christopher Walken upped his ante of craziness and migrated across the Great Plains to a place once described as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" by Alec Guinness himself: Pennsylvania. Based on the jaw-dropping real-life events masterminded by one Bruce Johnston, Sr., At Close Range finds young Sean Penn as a defiant youth in the same state that would later see cinema's first rising of flesh-eating zombies. Yearning for a father figure to idolize, Penn's Brad Whitewood, Jr. soon gets more than he asked for when his biological pappy (Walken), Brad, Sr., pops up out of the blue one day with a wad of cash and a certain allure about him. Naturally, elder Brad is anything but the perfect role model ‒ as our naïve protagonist learns once he starts venturing out late at night helping his father's ragtag group of criminals, including the unbeatable combination of both Tracey Walter and an epileptic David Strathairn.

Soon, much like a famous real life idiot would later do with a war in the Middle East, Baby Bruce is trying to please his daddy by gathering up his own gang of young would-be hoodlums to steal tractors (because rural Pennsylvania). This includes the dynamic assembling of Crispin Glover, who looks like he just came back from the future with his weird pre '90s, pre-emo fashion; a pre-fame/pre-vampiric Kiefer Sutherland; a post-vampiric/pre-gay porn Stephen Geoffreys; and even Sean's own doomed baby brother, Chris Penn ‒ who here, in a strange twist of fate, plays Sean's doomed baby brother. Tension transcends into utter madness once Penn's onscreen girlfriend, Mary Stuart Masterson, begins to irk psycho Walken, who makes it very difficult for his extended family to enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner together ever again. Sean's then-wifey Madonna performs the hit theme song "Live to Tell" for the soundtrack, as composed by Patrick Leonard, whose isolated score is contained here in an DTS-HD MA 2.0 track as a bonus along with a trailer and bonus commentary by director James Foley and Twilight Time's Nick Redman.

Moving away from the rural wasteland of Pennsylvania, we move to sunny California, and into the decayed urban setting of another wasteland altogether, Stockton. But by the time John Huston's human drama Fat City was released in July of 1972, Stockton had already decayed into another wretched hive of scum and villainy ‒ so much so, that even if Christopher Walken had achieved his goal to wipe out Silicon Valley in A View to a Kill, Stockton's best feature would still be the fact that you don't actually have to stop there. And in the case of the setting of Fat City, the city of Stockton later had to build a special extension of a state highway just so people could get out. (Interestingly, the original skid row locations Leonard Gardner's original novel were set in had been demolished in the '60s, so they filmed on the outskirts of those spots, which were later torn down to make way for the freeway!) Needless to say, this drama about the lives of two different boxers ‒ one with a future, the other with only a past ‒ isn't the happiest of tales. But then, what else would you expect from Stockton?

Here, Stacy Keach stars as a boxer named who has surely seen better days, who meets an 18-year-old Jeff Bridges (surely destined to be known only as Beau's baby brother) and sees great potential. Except that John Huston's film isn't of the same tired, clichéd variety of nauseating "guy meets kid, guy trains kid, kid wins fight, guy tears up, fade out" filmfare. Instead, Fat City offers a grim look at a bleak existence which all men (and sometimes, women named Rhonda and Holly) should think about before having their brains systematically knocked out. Nicholas Colasanto (Cheers) is Keach's old manager; real life ex-boxer Curtis Cokes is a guy named Earl; and the late Susan Tyrrell (who was actually in that Angel film I confused Neil Jordan's movie with) takes the cake flavored vodka as barfly Oma. Twilight Time's Blu-ray sports (heh) a DTS-HD MA soundtrack in both 5.1 and 2.0, with an isolated score (in DTS-HD MA 2.0), and audio commentary by film historians Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs as the feature film's sparring partners. The original theatrical trailer is also in accompaniment.

While the magnitude of depression one may encounter visiting Fat City (and likewise, Stockton) is intense, it shall never win a round in the ring with that of the Great Depression itself ‒ a time set shortly after the William Powell's fall from grace in The Hoodlum Saint and during the subsequent Rise of the Hobo. But worry ye not, fair travelers: there are no Rutger Hauers sporting double-barreled firearms amidst feeble attempts to recreate cinema's golden age of exploitation here. But then, you don't need to go that kind of full-on crazy when you have Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine onboard. And indeed these two excel like no others ever could in this tale of an extremely ornery railroad conductor and one very determined passenger. Mind you, that's the nice way of putting it: the reality of the film's situation finds sadistic Ernie Borgnine executing every method possible ‒ including execution itself ‒ to prevent hobos from riding his train, and Mr. Marvin as the legendary hero of the hobo community who wages he can pull off the name of The Cure's third single and achieve the title of Emperor of the North Pole.

Better known under its re-release title, which omitted the Pole in a weird effort to stop stupid people from thinking it was a holiday themed movie or Admiral Byrd biopic, 1973's Emperor of the North presents an oft-surreal Depression-era America where live chickens are just as deadly in a fight as chains and hammers. Partly inspired by the (uncredited) writings of Leon Ray Livingston and Jack London, the film features Lee Marvin and co-star Keith Carradine as characters named "A-No.-1" and "Cigaret" (which were the actual respective pseudonyms of Livingston and London during their travels). Director Robert Aldrich (who replaced Sam Peckinpah, who replaced Martin Ritt) had previously conducted Borgnine and Marvin in The Dirty Dozen several years earlier. Twilight Time's recommended release of this hard act to follow features a mono DTS-HD MA soundtrack with an isolated score (in 2.0 DTS-HD MA), commentary by film historian Dana Polan, several TV spots, and trailer as extras. The fascinating ride co-stars many recognizable faces, including Charles Tyner, Vic Tayback, Elisha Cook, Jr., and exploitation movie regular Sid Haig.

Well, seeing as how B movie regulars are standing out to me more than others, this could be an inclination that I am finally in the vicinity of the kind of movie I was actually hoping to start this article out with. Indeed I am knee-deep in the murky waters of a true exploitation film here, ladies and gentlemen, and I can see by the ol' clock on the wall that it is now 10 to Midnight. Probably the most surprising title to be released by Twilight Time since 2013's Mindwarp, this is most assuredly a moving picture that is a hard pill to swallow, especially for more established connoisseurs of cinema. Co-produced by frequent repeat offenders to the genre Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and released under the now-infamous Cannon Films banner, 10 to Midnight is cheap, lurid, shameless '80s exploitation at its finest. So who better to star in this type of a vehicle than aging action star Charles Bronson and the same man who would later go off to bring us the universally maligned Battlefield Earth, actor/producer Andrew Stevens?

Made solely after another project fell through and producer Pancho Kohner needed something to fill in an empty promise to backers for a film featuring action, titties, revenge and ‒ most importantly ‒ titties, 10 to Midnight (a title that has absolutely nothing to do with the film, just so you know: Kohner needed something to fit the bill for the title he pitched, so he dusted off an old unfilmed script) finds a good deal of its "inspiration" (and I use that word cautiously) from real life killers Richard Speck and Ted Bundy. Gene Davis is the sexually frustrated antagonist of this slasher/revenge flick, who commits bloody massacres in the nude. Young Kelly Preston ‒ future wife of Battlefield Earth star John Travolta ‒ is one of his victims. Lisa Eilbacher is Bronson's estranged daughter and potential target of Davis, and Mr. Stevens is a junior detective. Geoffrey Davis and Wilford Brimley also grab quick paychecks in this, the fourth film Bronson made with director J. Lee Thompson, and the second of many Bronson/Cannon collaborations. Roger Ebert prominently declared it as "a scummy little sewer of a movie" in his less-than-appreciative review of the film back in '82.

Surprisingly, Twilight Time's Blu-ray release of this true guilty pleasure actually comes with an audio commentary. Conducted by genre film historian David Del Valle, the track interviews and features many production tales by producer Kohner, who is joined by casting director John Crowther. An isolated score (with some effects) is provided in 2.0 DTS-HD MA, while the film's regular soundtrack is presented in 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Three radio spots and a theatrical trailer are also included. All of the titles titles in this lineup also feature liner notes by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo (and judging by her opening remarks on 10 to Midnight, I only wish I could have been there as she watched the movie for the first time). Each title is limited to 3,000 units per title, and is presently available for purchase from the official Twilight Time Movies website, and at Screen Archives while supplies last.

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