A Note About the Deathsport Commentary
If you find yourself holding this DVD and wavering. Buy it solely for the commentary track on Deathsport with codirector Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock. It's amazingly funny, well researched, loaded with crazy on-the-set stories and details of daily life at New World Pictures during its peak at the end of the 1970s. Arkush has no illusions about the quality of Deathsport, it stinks, and welcomes you to the commentary with "well, if anyone is actually came this far in Deathsport, and is still listening, then they know what they're getting into." Arkush, himself, has a really interesting relationship with Deathsport too, he was making trailers and TV spots for other New World Films when Henry Suso sort of flamed out when all of the first unit shots for Deathsport were done. Corman brought Akrush in for the princely sum of $450 per week (up from the lesser princely sum of $300 a week) and set him to work on some reshoots, rewrites, and editing. Long-standing problems with the "futuristic" race bikes that plagued the original shoot under Henry Suso would be dealt with in true Corman fashion; the non-working bikes would be blown up on camera. Honestly, I can't even do the excellence of this commentary track justice other than to say if you ever had any interest at all in how Corman's New World Pictures operated, or how a low-budget B-Picture studio functioned, or how young energetic guys got involved in crazy-ass movies, this is THE DVD commentary to buy.
Now, onto the features.
Deathsport (1978) - Directed by Henry Suso/Allan Arkush
Deathsport is one of the worst movies I've ever managed to sit through. Meant to follow up and capitalize on the success of Deathrace 2000, Deathsport alleges to present a world where all sports are surpassed by horrifying gladiatorial battles. What we actually get is a terrible motorcycle chase movie with some extremely ham-handed mysticism, naturism, and horrific acting. Meet Kaz Oshay, a futuristic Conan kock off played by David Carradine. He's a "range tracker" who leads city dwellers between one self-contained city and another. The world was long ago ravaged by "the neutron wars" whatever those are, and now inhabiting the dead zones between the cities are bug-eyed mutants a-la Killers from Space. Lord Zirpola wants to keep the residents of his city happy and to do that he needs to keep the Deathsport season ongoing. However, his plans for conquest of a neighboring city requires the extensive testing of "death machines" these will be played by horribly gilded Yamaha motorcycles. Facilitating this testing (by way of the Deathsport) is Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch) a disgraced former Range Guide who's gone on to be the right hand man to a crazy king. Rounding out the cast is Range Guide Deneer (Claudia Jennings), also captured for the games and a convenient romantic love interest for Ankar Moor, Doctor Karl (William Smithers) who first tells Lord Zirpola that he's going crazy and wil ldie, and finally Marcus Karl (Will Walker) the son of the doctor who was trying to get to the next city when he was captured by the security forces under Richard Lynch. Oh, there's all a Range Guide kid snatched up by the mutants.
Got all that?
Great. Okay, the movie sucks, it's stupid, the plot is empty, and the acting is virtually non-existent — especially from Will Walker, the special effects are mostly explosions, and the music is a horrible synth-score with occasional blurbs of guitar. There's absolutely nothing to like in Deathsport.
And yes, all of the motorcycles explode in glorious fashion, plus, there are some boobies.
Shout Factory releases Deathsport in anamorphic widescreen and for the most part the print is excellent. However there are some scenes with a persistent green scratches along the right side. Usually in scenes that are extremely dark like when Lord Zirpola is watching naked girls dance around some LED lights. At first I thought this was part of those scenes because that's where I noticed it first, but it's in several others as well. The rest though is very nice and clear.
Deathsport comes jacked to the stacks with all sorts of goodies though that help level out much of the terribleness of the actual film. We get original radio and TV spots, which if you aren't familiar with the way Corman used to market movies, are a hilarious overselling of a film that can't possibly be as exciting or even interesting as the spots make it out to be. The trailer is also included, and some stills. Finally, the amazingly good and entertaining commentary with codirector Allan Arkush and Larry Bock, which is worth the full price of the DVD.
Battletruck (1981) - Directed by Harley Cockliss
This is the film in this set you watch for the film.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world following the end of "The Oil Wars", Battletruck concerns a giant modified tractor trailer (articulated lorry for our UK readers) containing a whole host of military refugees seeking out supplies and women to keep them all happy and well fed during the post apocalyptic boom years. Led by Straker (James Wainright), the battletruck plows through the desert landscape (New Zealand for this film) seeking out settlements of people who've managed to eke out a living, then, like the marauding bandits in The Seven Samurai, take all of the supplies leaving only just enough for the village to avoid complete starvation.
It's pretty much a standard western with a motorcycle instead of a horse for the hero.
When Straker's daughter, Corlie (Annie MacEnroe) decides she can't stand her crazy old man or his cadre of rapist assholes, she takes off. Rescued by Hunter (Michael Beck) she starts a new life in a new little town and doesn't bother to mention that she has a homicidal father with an emperor complex and a giant armored truck. Straker shows up looking for women, food, and Corlie, and that draws Hunter back from his cabin to put right what the Straker and the Battletruck have made wrong.
Battletruck, for all of the similarities to other post apocalypse films, manages to be both fun to watch and engaging. Michael Beck, a criminally underused B-actor who should have transitioned to A-list films, is excellent as Hunter. A lone, former soldier who's taken to avoiding people and existing in his hippy dippy cabin up in the mountains and riding around his futuristic methane powered motorcycle. The village/commune where the refugees of The Oil Wars looks like it comes right out of a 1978 copy of Mother Earth News, the people look like refugees, and they're rebuilding the social order from the ground up. Usually these sort of details don't get any plot time but here in Battletruck we get to spend a little time watching the world building. We don't get that so much from Straker and his men, but the fact that they're marauders I guess is enough to define them.
Once the battle between Straker and Hunter becomes personal, the film leaps out of the thinking man's science fiction into more of an action movie with Beck and his motorcycle vs. Straker's truck.
Director Harley Cockliss uses some excellent chopper-shots and camera work to help make the story exciting. Today's directors could learn visual storytelling techniques from Mr. Cockliss too. There are several scenes that run over a minute where he shows the plot elements without a single line of dialogue. And when he does use dialogue, the script by Irving Austin and John Beech doesn't disappoint. The original idea for the story was conceived in 1976 by Harley Cockliss , and developed with Corman and shot at the same time as The Road Warrior.
The Shout Factory release of Battletruck is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. I don't know if this was originally shot in widescreen, and it doesn't get mentioned in the commentary. Either way, the print is crisp and clean, even upconverted to 1080i. There are no artifacts, and the score is well balanced through my TV speakers. Battletruck comes with an interview-style commentary with Harley Cockliss where he takes questions from a moderator who drives the direction of the conversation around many of the larger aspects of the film. There is no scene-by-scene breakdown, no "this actor was in that as this guy" and none of the annoying minutia that plagues so many commentaries. In very few instances it's possible to tell that Cockliss is actually watching the film as the commentary is recorded as he remarks on, for example, the geodesic dome, or a particular chopper-shot.
It's a quality commentary and very interesting. Cockliss doesn't have the same sort of manic insanity to his memories as Allan Arkush, but the details about the way he tells a story in film, or came to use this crew, or wanted to show this element, are utterly fascinating.
One great Corman film, two great commentaries = three reasons to buy this double feature.