Arrow Home Video’s Top Five Releases From 2017

The Criterion of cult labels had a banner year. Here's our five favorites.

Arrow Home Video have been doing the Lord's Work since bringing their operation to American shores. Each release is immaculately packaged - delivering Criterion-level features and critical analysis to films many would deem unworthy of such attention. I mean, who would've thought we'd have a stacked Blu-ray of The Slayer ('82) or The Mutilator ('84)? Certainly not this life-long cinematic crate digger. 

In 2017, Arrow continued to shine in a home video market that's seen mighty labels (ahem, Scream Factory) blow their wad too early on an array of titles, and are now simply content to drop bare bones editions of whatever MGM will license out of their vault. To celebrate another banner year, I selected the releases that placed Arrow head and shoulders above its competition. Hopefully, we continue to see more of the same come 2018 (and based on their upcoming slate there's no reason to believe we won't)...

#5. Brain Damage [1988] (d. & w. Frank Henenlotter)

For NYC grime auteur Frank Henenlotter, addiction is the jumping off point for another one of his neon-slathered dives into The Deuce’s gutters (which has been restored to accent the movie's beautiful blue color palette). Like Basket Case (’82) before, and Frankenhooker (’90) after, Brain Damage (’88) is an icky, textured mining of loneliness and social mores that uses a scummy monster to entertain while he spikes his rather potent lo-fi cocktail with a healthy dose of subversion (which BMD's own Michael Gingold highlights in his exhaustive making-of essay in the liner notes). Emerging smack dab in the middle of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign that pervaded pop culture during the late '80s, the writer/director’s colorfully morbid tale of a young slacker’s symbiotic relationship with a pretty poison dispensing parasite was especially timely.

Yet it’s Henenlotter’s ability to once again place you inside those dingy apartments and dangerous back alleys that guarantees a sense of authenticity no politician could ever hope to achieve from their Ivory Houses in DC. The result is a splatterpunk polemic that never truly judges its wayward protagonist or the members of the audience who use drugs, taking an oddly empathetic stance toward the user even as its nightmarish cartoon carnivore devours the grey matter of innocent victims, just so our man can get his next fix. This is a genuine trash horror masterpiece, and finally owning it in high-def is one hell of a great feeling. 

#4. Between Night & Dawn - The Early Films of George A. Romero [1971 - 1973] (d. & w. George A. Romero) 

When George A. Romero passed this year, it was a seismic loss to horror. The man is a legend for good reason, having practically invented the shambling, flesh-hungry zombie we know and love (and have beaten to death in Romero rip-offs like The Walking Dead) with his classic trilogy (Night of the Living Dead ['68], Dawn of the Dead ['78], Day of the Dead ['86]). But what Arrow Films has done with their Between Night and Dawn collection is gather up three films from the early part of his filmography that aren't talked about as much as they should be (though, to be honest, the set is still missing Martin ['78]). With There's Always Vanilla ('71), Season of the Witch ('72), and The Crazies ('73), you get an in-depth look at the master's early years, working in feminist and anti-authoritarian genre cinema. All three are jangly slices of independent Pittsburgh horror, belonging to a single author. While certainly far from perfect, there's enough contained in each to act as a history lesson in one of our late, great American icons' creative tendencies.

Seeing these films cleaned up is a total treat, but Arrow packages them together in one of their wonderful mini-boxes, including a whole book of essays on these lesser-seen pieces of horror history. Now, Romero's work is put into greater context, as we can see how these three fit into his greater narrative as a filmmaker, while never losing sight of his major, genre re-defining works. It's a classy media love letter to a titan who's left us, but whose mark will forever be felt on the medium he (and we) love the most. 

#3. Don't Torture A Duckling [1972] (d. Lucio Fulci, w. Roberto Gianviti, Gianfranco Clerici & Lucio Fulci)

Don’t Torture a Duckling is not your typical giallo picture, nor is it your typical Lucio Fulci film. It's unsexy and wholly competent (save for the dummies found floating in the river, standing in for dead bodies). Where most gialli zero in on the lurid sexuality of their killers' crimes, Fulci's work instead lingers on the grief that a series of murders provoke in a small Italian town. Though it follows a series of child murders, almost all of the onscreen violence is reserved for adults, allowing Fulci to exercise his usual amount of savagery in the name of shock and awe. Don't Torture a Duckling announces Fulci’s grand entrance into the realm of being a full-on gore maestro, and the SFX are incredibly unsettling and effective. Ditto the music by Riz Ortolani, which alternates (like many of his soundtracks) between soothingly idyllic and jaggedly jarring. 

Most of Fulci's strange and popular works - The Beyond ('81), House By the Cemetery ('81), The New York Ripper ('82) -  have been restored over the years, but Duckling somehow lingered, despite being arguably the most technically sound picture in his entire filmography. Finally having a beautifully cleaned edition of the picture is a blessing that Arrow's bestowed upon us, and we should all be thankful - especially when combining this with Severin's '17 release of The Devil's Honey ('86) - that even the darkest corners of the Italian madman's CV are being dusted off for a new generation of cult aficionados. 

#2. New Battles Without Honor & Humanity [1974 - 1976] (d. Kinji Fukasaku, w. Koichi Iiboshi, Fumio Kōnami, Susumu Saji & Kōji Takada)

When Kinji Fukasaku and Toei’s five film run of Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza bloodshed pictures came to a close with Final Episode ('74), audiences were still madly in love with the series and demanded more. Like all companies who smell a profit, the studio was more than happy to oblige, and over the next three years, Fukasaku (after a little coaxing from producers) delivered the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy. This revived series began the same year the original classic crime movies ended  – FE hit theatres in June '74, New Battles 1 released in the final week of December that same year - and honestly give the first set a run for their money in terms of stoic, hyper-active violence (Fukasaku always had the greatest, most exhausting camerawork), while treading much of the same thematic ground and providing a wonderful cast of new characters loosely connected to the first series' murderous rogues. 

Like the aforementioned Romero set, Arrow has taken an opportunity here to shine a light on the lesser-known works of a master filmmaker who helped redefine a country's genre filmmaking. Fukasaku is one of the most important directors in the history of Japanese cinema, and many folks don't even know that he made a second run of Battles Without Honor and Humanity pictures. These stand-alone works offer more hellish trips into the underworld, as Fukasaku's mindful lens paints these cops and criminals with the same side-eye to their basic ethics as the poliziotteschi masters who were filling Italy's theaters with similar crime sagas during the '70s. These are murky morality tales filled with brutal violence, and it's great that Arrow has taken the time to collect them all in one place for the hardest core cult film collectors out there. 

#1. Bird With the Crystal Plumage [1970] (d. & w. Dario Argento)

A stunning classic that admittedly - just like their release of Re-Animator ('85) this year - has been put out several times before, Arrow's 4K restoration of Argento's giallo masterwork is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and totally worth the somewhat steep price tag. Every one of the dynamic compositions the movie possesses could be screen-shot and hung in the movie's art gallery setting, as like most of his '70s work, Argento's pulpy murder mystery moves like a fluid painting, never once letting us out of its wonderous, hypnotic grasp. Though the plot is another routine giallo deconstruction of the emasculated man, unable to help female victims as he catches the killer in the middle of his horrific act, Argento proves why his name became synonymous with the Italian stalk and slash subgenre. Nobody - save for maybe Bava - shot these murder set pieces with the same verve, transforming even the most grounded whodunits into vivid fever dreams. 

Arrow’s new Blu-ray is their second stab at presenting the film (if you'll pardon the pun), and proves that even the best companies sometimes require more than one go to get the classics 100% correct. Thank goodness that they did, because this is one of the greatest packages an Argento picture has ever seen, and that includes this year's 4K restoration of Suspiria ('77) presented by Synapse. The maestro continues to receive the respect he deserves, and Arrow's Bird With the Crystal Plumage is both a great starting point for new fans, and a healthy reminder for die hards that this is still one of the great works of Italian horror ever crafted. 

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