Wednesday, April 4, 2012

THOU SHALT NOT KILL...EXCEPT (Blu-ray & DVD)

Growing up in Michigan, Josh Becker made Super-8 home movies, often in collaboration with like-minded friends; most notably, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. In fact, he worked with his buddies as a crew member on THE EVIL DEAD, and after filming of that cult classic was finished, he and Campbell were driving an equipment truck from the flick's rural Tennessee location back to Detroit. During the long drive, the two friends came up with an idea for a movie, which would eventually become THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT (1985, a/k/a STRYKER'S WAR).

Sgt. Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) is wounded in Vietnam in 1969, and returns home to his one-room shack in the Michigan woods with a limp and a considerable amount of self-pity. Roused from his self-destructive alcoholic haze by the prospect of reuniting with his high school sweetheart, Sally (Cheryl Hausen), Stryker cleans up and straightens out, just as three of his war buddies (Robert Rickman, John Manfredi and Timothy Patrick Quill) show up unannounced to visit him. Coincidentally, a cult of crazed hippies are terrorizing the neighborhood, led by a wild-eyed nutjob who believes he is Jesus Christ (Sam Raimi). When Stryker's dog is sacrificed and Sally kidnapped by the cult, the sergeant and his war buddies swing into action, taking to the woods and taking on the hippies.

Becker's first feature film (he would go on to direct Campbell in RUNNING TIME and ALIEN APOCALYPSE, as well as various episodes of Raimi's HERCULES and XENA television series) is very crude and uneven, with an undercooked screenplay, broad performances (Raimi is particularly unrestrained), and extremely low production values. Much of the movie was shot in Bruce Campbell's garage and backyard. Still, there's an undeniable, raw energy running through the flick, a youthful exuberance and sincere attempt at over-the-top "showmanship" that makes up for some of the film's more egregious technical flaws. You also have to commend the filmmakers' ambitiousness - THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT is set in the late Sixties and includes Vietnam combat sequences. To attempt a period film and jungle warfare scenes in the 80s in the suburbs of Detroit is pretty damned audacious - and they almost pull it off!

The movie is hurt most by the weakness of Brian Schulz' Sgt. Stryker. The part had always been intended for Campbell, and when Becker made a 48 minute Super-8 version of his script to raise financing for the 16mm feature, the actor starred in the lead role. But, by the time Becker raised the funds for a feature version, Campbell had joined the Screen Actor's Guild, and couldn't work on a non-union picture. Becker's budget didn't allow for a union crew, so Campbell was out. Schulz - who has no other film credits - was cast instead, but the guy has no screen presence at all. The rest of the cast varies from adequate (professional Mr. T impersonator Rickman) to... embarrassing. Sam Raimi, in particular, seems to be having a good time, but he chews the scenery mercilessly, making his character more of a grotesque clown than a genuine threat.

The new Blu-ray/DVD Combo set from Synapse Films is an amazing package, beginning with a new 2K, high-definition 1.66:1 widescreen transfer. Picture quality is remarkably good, considering its age and 16mm origin, and a definite improvement over the Anchor Bay DVD from several years ago. Audio is DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono, but it can't do too much with the movie's poor sound mix. It's... adequate.

It is the supplemental material that really makes the package such a gem, though, porting over everything that was on the Anchor Bay edition plus several new, exclusive features. There are two audio commentary tracks. Track one is from the old Anchor Bay disc and features director Becker and Campbell in an entertaining, often hilarious, and informative commentary. Track two is also fun, and  features actor Brian Schulz and Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher (Red Shirt produced the new extras). There is a terrific "making of" documentary, a video interview with Campbell (shot on the sets of MY NAME IS BRUCE on Campbell's Oregon property), a deleted scene and the original theatrical trailer.

Best of all, though, is the original Super-8 presentation film, STRYKER'S WAR, starring a young Bruce Campbell as Sgt. Jack Stryker. While technically crude, I actually found it superior to the subsequent theatrical feature, with a tighter narrative, some surprisingly accomplished photography and editing, and a much stronger performance in the lead.

THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT is not a "good" movie. But as an example of ultra-low budget exploitation filmmaking, it has its good points. You can see the filmmakers learning their craft as they go, and, as I said before, it does possess a certain crude charm. If you're interested in the careers of the guys involved in the making of THE EVIL DEAD, this Blu-ray/DVD Combo is definitely worth checking out, especially as the bonus material is just bursting with anecdotes about the gang and guerrilla film making.

Recommended.

BUYThou Shalt Not Kill... Except  (Blu-ray/DVD Combo)