Tuesday, July 25, 2006

MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ BLACK BOX - SHADES OF NEO-NOIR

Award-winning mystery writer Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition and dozens of other novels), has always been a vocal defender of Mickey Spillane and has made no bones about Spillane’s influence on his own work.

For a decade now, Collins has been supplementing his mystery writing career by directing a number of low-budget independent films. Several of these movies have recently been collected by Troma Entertainment under their new Neo Noir label and released all together in the MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ BLACK BOX collection.

BLACK BOX contains a new, two-disc special edition of Collins’ first two suspense films, MOMMY (1995) and MOMMY 2: MOMMY’S DAY (1997), his multi-angle thriller, REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET (2000), and his crime anthology film, SHADES OF NOIR (2006).

(In the interests of full disclosure, Collins is a friend of mine, and we have collaborated on comic book projects in the past. Still, I greatly admire his independent filmmaking efforts, and I'm pretty certain that my opinion of his movies would be the same, even if I didn't know him personally.)

MOMMY stars Patty McCormack (Oscar winner for her performance as the bad little girl in THE BAD SEED) as a murderous mother who has only her daughter’s (Rachel Lemieux) best interests at heart, even if she has to kill to ensure them. In the sequel, MOMMY’S DAY, she receives a stay of execution for her previous crimes, and continues to look after her little girl – but is she still killing?

Both movies were shot on digital video and look like it, but the scripts – as one might expect – are very good and suspenseful, and Collins has top loaded the films with experienced actors. McCormack is excellent as the over-protective mama, and supporting roles are filled out with familiar faces like Majel Barret (STAR TREK), Brinke Stevens (TEENAGE EXORCIST), Jason Miller (THE EXORCIST), Gary Sandy (WKRP), and Mickey Spillane himself as Mommy’s bemused lawyer.

The new, two-disc set includes the same slightly-letterboxed transfers as the original Troma releases, and are packed with bonus features, many of which are new to this edition. There’s old and new commentary tracks by Collins, cast and crew, an on-screen interview with McCormack, bloopers, the "Making of Mommy" featurette, vintage media coverage, an audio recording of the original "Mommy" short story, and more cool stuff I’m surely forgetting.

Currently, this 2-disc special edition is only available in the BLACK BOX collection.

You know that "Angle" button on your DVD remote? Bet you haven’t used it much. But if you get your hands on Collins’ REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET, you’ll probably give it a real workout.

The story of REAL TIME is simplicity itself: two armed robbers hold up a convenience store, and before long they have a rapidly-escalating hostage situation on their hands. But the genius of the film is not only that it plays out in – get this -– "real time," but that it is presented as if you’re watching the events unfold on the store’s multiple security cameras. Using that aforementioned "Angle" button, you can choose which camera angle you want to use to watch events unfold, and depending on your vantage point, you may see things you’d miss from another.

Well acted and tensely paced, Collins’ REAL TIME is a "real" achievement, and definitely deserves more notice for being one of the only direct-to-DVD films that actually takes full advantage of the format.

The movie is presented on the Troma DVD in multiple aspect ratios, depending on the scene and angle you use to view it. In all cases, the digital video is sharp and clear. The disc includes three commentary tracks with the filmmakers ands tars, audition tapes, deleted scenes, alternate takes, two trailers, a Ms Tree comic book story, an audio presentation of the short story the film is based on, and cast and crew biograpies.

Highly recommended. REAL TIME is also available separately.

The final disc in the set is SHADES OF NOIR, an anthology of short films directed (well, except for one) by the famed mystery author.

The disc starts of with the short, ELIOT NESS: AN UNTOUCHABLE LIFE, which stars Michael Cornelison as Ness, in what is essentially a monologue relating an anecdote from Ness’ life. It’s cute and well made, but too brief. Apparently, this was demonstration film used to raise financing for a feature-length version.

The second film, A MATTER OF PRINCIPAL, is an excellent adaptation of one of Collins’ "Quarry" short stories about a retired hitman getting caught up in a kidnapping scheme. It’s directed by a young filmmaker named Jeffrey Goodman, and it’s very good, with a strong performance by William Makozak as Quarry.

THREE WOMEN is based on a story by Collins’ mystery writer wife, Barb, and it’s a simple, one-set, one act piece with some decent acting, but no real meat. The story, such as it is, consists of three women being questioned by police in an interrogation room about a murder that all three claim to have committed.

The real heart of the anthology, however, is Collins’ excellent biographical documentary, MIKE HAMMER’S MICKEY SPILLANE. It’s a very well written and professional looking documentary, with on-screen interviews with Spillane himself, as well as actor Stacy Keach, producer Jay Bernstein and many well-known and respected mystery writers. There are also rare clips from the various film and TV adaptations of Mickey’s work, and even a couple of Mickey’s great Lite Beer commercials. It covers Spillane’s life and career in considerable detail and examines the effect his work has had on both pop culture and the mystery genre.

The disc also includes as a Bonus Feature the "lost" MIKE HAMMER pilot from 1954, starring Brian Keith and directed by Blake Edwards. What a find! Keith is excellently cast as Hammer (and even resembles Spillane, somewhat). The direction and writing is on a par with Edwards’ own later PETER GUNN work, and is remarkably violent. This is the real gem of the disc, along with the Spillane documentary and the "Quarry" film.

Other bonus features include a trailer for the 1953 version of I, THE JURY, a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of A MATTER OF PRINCIPAL, and an audio presentation of a rare Mike Hammer LP narrated by Spillane called "Tonight My Love."

SHADES OF NOIR is only available as part of the BLACK BOX collection.

MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ BLACK BOX is a great DVD set, with hours of independently produced mystery and suspense. Highly recommended.

BUY: Max Allan Collins - The Black Box Collection: Shades of Neo-Noir