Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collect - Weird Wisconsin( Blu Ray boxset) [Arrow Video - 2021]
Weird Wisconsin is a recent Blu Ray boxset from Arrow video, it takes in six films from regional genre film-maker Bill Rebane. The pictures featured here move between glumly stilted Sci-fi meets 60’s teen cheese. Onto isolated characters at end of the world or amid a virus from space thriller/ dramas. Though to ghost focused horror, onto rich folks doing nasty things thriller horror, and a monster truck meets bumbling comedy caper.
The four-disc boxset is laid out very much like the companies recent William Grefé box- so the first three-disc each take in two films, with the final disc featuring a new two-hour doc on Rebane. Each disc also features the six-part Straight Shooter- an around ten-minute sum-up/ intro for each of the films by Rebane himself, and he comes across both very down-to-earth and at points dryly amusing- so they are all well worth a watch. Also, there are a few other extras dotted across the set, and I’ll mention those as I get to them.
First, up on disc one, we have 1965’s Monster a go-go, and this really is a curio- as filmed in stark-at-points moody monochrome, with a tone that moves from glumly stilted, camp and silly, to waveringly unsettling-to-cocked eyed. Rebane filmed most of the films footage, but was this was edited by and added to by Herschell Gordon Lewis- so as a result both the pace, some of the scene cutting, and the flow of the film is uneven. The film's plot focuses on a space capsule crash landing after problems with the mission, and the occupants of the craft have seemingly disappeared. A spate of strange deaths start occurring near where the crash took place- and they are seemingly been carried out seven-foot-tall man, whose face is deformed and covered in lumps ‘n’ bumps. The budget is clearly as low as it could be-the spacecraft looks like it was brought from a toy shop, and doesn’t look like a man could fit inside it. The scientist lab looks like an office, and the acting goes from hammy and downright bad. The film soundtrack is a blend of wonkily droning/ loudly mixed organ and lo-fi electronics- sinister atmospherics when the huge lumbering and deformed man appears. It’s runs at just over the hour mark, and at points, it does drag- though there are effective moments of wavering unease/ dread- which at points almost wonder towards grim arty-ness. The runtime is a mix of your typical sci-fi banter, folk wandering around scrubland where the craft downed, with later shots down in sewers and at a small airport. We also get a few moments of rather glum-looking teens doing groovy dance moves, and teens getting attacked- but you never really see the results of said attacks. The most effective moments come when the towering killer appears- and yes like the rest of the film there are rough and readily shot, but there are some quite nice touches of dread and uneasy…and when the films all done and wrapped out we get a rather chilling resolve, though I’m guessing again much of this is down to the tinny budget/ hacking editing job by Lewis. In conclusion Monster a go-go is somewhat of a curio, even with-in z budget exploitation due to the blend of glum-to-arty touches and more formal/cheesy sci-fi tropes, with of course the whole thing been wonkily pulled together.
Next on disc one, we have 1974’s Invasion From Inner Earth- and this I guess is best described as a very low key, often slow-paced pandemic film. It focuses on a group of twenty-somethings who are out in the wintery wildness of Canada. After trying to fly back home from their wilderness break- they find out that seemingly some plague has killed most of mankind, so they head to hide out in the woods to try and survive. The film kicks off in fairly high gear- as we get a montage of panicked people running, dramatic close-up of the globe, close-up of eyes, colour powder explosion out in the wildness, and a few other fairly trippy/ dramatic imagery. From here the pace starts to slow somewhat- we have fairly tense trying to land at a small airport scene, as the one remaining but infected tries to stop the group landing. From here the pace really does slow to a crawl- with the just over hour and a half runtime feeling more like two hours long, so unfortunately Mr Rebane still hasn’t resolved his pacing issues. The film mostly tells of a group of around six people trying to figure out what’s gone on, and how the appearance of a red light shape relates to the issues. It’s largely a very plodding and dialogue base picture- the cast are passable, with one or two more memorable characters- we get some good enough dramatic interaction, and the idea of a plague running wild around the world while this small group remains is neat, rather bringing to mind something like The Happening. Oh, and another thing I’ve got mention regarding this film is the very overloaded use of synth scoring- to start with it’s extremely overdone, shifting and at points very wonkily- and most bizarrely we get a recreation of the theme from A Few Dollars More!. As the film goes on this synth manic-ness eases off, and we don’t get any more blatant rip-offs, instead, we get a still wonky, at times wondering score, which at moments has the fairly effective cues that shift between creepiness, unease, and tense-ness. In conclusion Invasion From Inner Earth is a very low key/ stripped back example of 70’s sci-fi, there are some neat ideas here, as well as some moments of dramatic interaction- but like Rebane first film there are real pacing issues.
On the extras side on this disc aside from Straight Shooter parts. We get a fifteen-minute featurette from the always worthy Kim Newman- he talks about Rebane career as a whole, points out effective memorable moments in many of his films, and cataloguing his work ‘as weird things happen’, he finishers off by declaring while not all of Rebane work is great, it certainly has it’s worth and deserves to be considered with the best work from the likes of Andy Milligan and Hersel Gordon Lewis. We also get two early shorts on this disc- these are Twist Craze, and Dance Craze, and lastly we get Kidnap Extortion- a 1973 industrial short by the director.
Moving onto disc number two, and first up we have 1978’s The Alpha Incident- which is best described as a low-running virus from out of space Sci-fi thriller. The film is largely set inside an isolated US rural train station, where a selection of five characters have been isolated due to an escape microorganism from Mars. The film opens in a lab, with two scientists Dr Rogers(John Alderman)- who looks like a more weathered Hugh Laurie and bearded Dr Farrell(Paul Bentzen)- and we get a great creepy psychedelic close of the microorganism with brooding electronic score under. We find out sooner enough the microorganism has come back from Mars on a space probe, and it’s now to be taken to a more secure area via train. Then we move to said train to meet Dr Sorensen(Stafford Morgan) and Hank ( George ‘Buck’ Flowers), the Dr is somewhat tired and takes a nap, and Hank can’t resist going to look at what’s in the secret shipment, he opens it up, and one of the test tubes break cutting his hand. Fairly soon we’re rolling up on a small rural train station to change trains- and we meet Charlie(Ralph Meeker) an ageing train clerk, Jenny (Carol Irene Newell) who works a few times a week secretary, and Jack(John F. Goff) a brash, bulky and bearded rail worker. After getting off the train Sorensen realizes Hank is infected and rings back to base- and from here we move back and forth between a very blocky grey look operation room at the base, the two scientists trying to figure out what causes the virus to explode the brains of animals infected with it, and of course the five in the train station. What unfolds is a largely languid and building tension thriller, all of the five actors in the station are good- special mentions go Buck Flowers who is great as the chattering ‘n’ spitting well-meaning Hank, John F Goff as the brash and difficult Jack, and Carol Irene Newell as the at first seemingly balanced and flirting Jenny. Once again we have a few pacing issues, but these are reduced from before, and largely the film flows as an effective slow-burn sci-fi thriller, with some good B movie acting, oh and the whole brain bursting effect is rather neat, with an eyeball popping out and the old grey matter/ blood pushed out of the head.
Next up we have 1983 The Demons Of Ludlow, and this very much saw Rebane stepping away from more bleak and isolated Sci-fi focus, for an at points quite gory Ghost focused horror picture. The plot tells of Ludlow- a small Wisconsin coastal town that’s celebrating its 200th anniversary, and as part of the celebrations the town's mayor ships in a harpsichord from England, that was meant to have been owned by the town's founder. Fairly soon town folk start disappearing- and we find out they’ve been brutal murdered by the spirits of depraved aristocrats who are connected to the harpsichord- they start with a neat ghostly hand ripping guts kill, moving onto clawed hand rips, limbs chopped off, a be-heading and a few other neat kills. The killer aristocrats look neatly deformed and act nicely depraved, the film has some good enough creepy/ moody moments, and for a large part, the pacing issues have all but been ironed out, though now we do have the occasional sudden/ jarring cuts. Lead character-wise- we have a female journalist returning to the town after many years away, a shifty breaded and permed priest with a boozed-up wife, and a up-to-no-good mayor. The plot of the film is a little like Carpenter's Fog, but I think there are enough different and bizarre edges( bleeding harpsichord, crazed red-lit dream sequences, etc) to make it stands up on its own. All in a most satisfying early 80’s regional horror film.
On the extras side on this disc aside from the Straight Shooter parts, we get Rebane’s Key Largo, a sixteen-minute visual essay by historian and critic Richard Harland Smith, where he discusses The Alpha Incident and its influences. We get a trailer for both films and a promotional gallery.
First off on disc number three we have 1984’s The Cold( aka The Game)- and this found Rebane( largely) staying in the horror/ thriller side of things. The film finds three older millionaires- two men and one woman, inviting over nine guests to a remote hotel to play ‘the game’ which means they have survived been scared over two days, and whoever is left will receive a million dollars. The nine are a decidedly quirky mix of characters- we have a young woman training to be a lawyer, a sleazy moustached man, a self-assured and well-dressed man, two women- one a dumb southern bell, the other a cynical brunette. Then there’s a four-piece country pop band. The film's tone does rather shift- moving from playful and almost comic, sleazed and leering, unsettling and creepy, and campily horrifying. The pace on this one is way more balanced/ even than Rebane’s other films- and there’s a fairly bit of memorable scenes/ set-ups- we have a snuff video hanging, a group of face melted figures tiring up a woman and playing Russian roulette with her, a teethed and vomiting snake creature attacking someone in bed, and a very campy-but-kinda of neat haunted house walkthrough. At times the picture comes across more than a little scooby doo- with a stalking and hiding hunchback, folk suddenly pulled in rooms, and cheesy investigation stuff. The acting moves from terrible stilted and over the top, and there’s no really competent acting on display- though it will give a chuckle or two to those who enjoy bad acting. Oh, and the whole cold thing comes from a freezing air that floats around and kills folks in the hotel, and this seemingly has nothing to do with the millionaires or the ‘game’. All in all, it’s a fun romp of a film, and I really enjoy the wonky tonal shifts, and equally wonky acting/dialogue too.
Lastly, on disc three, we have 1988 Twisters Revenge- and it’s fair to say it’s very different from anything else on the set, what we have here is a monster truck family comedy with light Sci-FI touches. As a child of the ’70s/ 80’s I can clearly recall the whole monster truck crazy- where these huge tractor wheeled pick-up trucks would crush and ride over all manner of things, hell they even had special monster truck events, and as a 12-year old I found these kind of neat, now nearing my 50’s I’m afraid I’m a lot less taken, and that is the main/ big issue with Twisters Revenge for me. As basically a good 60-70 % of the film is taken up by Twister- a computerized monster truck, doing its riding over and crush stuff thing. Warped around this we have bumbling three stooges like criminals, who are trying to steal the truck- so we get the tuck to destroy a house they are in, and causing general chaos for the three. As a family comedy, there are some fairly light laughs here and there, and the whole Nightrider-in-big-truck banter is entertaining to a point, but really to be able to sit through this and fully enjoy it you’ve got to like monster trucks doing what they do, again and again….so as a result, if I was still 12 I’d rather get a kick out of this, but as it stands now I can’t see me wanting to watch it again. So it’s rather an odd final film, but I guess a quirky/ surprising last pick.
On the extras side on this disc aside from the next Straight Shooter parts, we get Discovering Bill Rebane- a twenty-six-minute featurette from historian & critic Stephen R. Bissette- he talks about memories of first seeing each of Rabanes films, and shows us a selection of related adverts from the time and connect papers, documents and pictures- this is most interesting and worthy. We get an original trailer for both films here, and a promotional galley too.
Disc four is taken up by the 2021 documentary Who Is Bill Rebane, and it’s extras. The doc itself runs just shy of the two-hour mark- and is most impressive and thorough, talking about each of Mr Rebanes- including the ones, not on this boxset-1975’s The Gaint Spider Invasion, 1979's The Capture Of Big Foot, 1981’s Rana: The Legend Of Shadow Lake, and his Tiny Tim Staring slasher film 1987's Blood Harvest. The doc written and directed by David Cairns- and he does a great job at gathering together those who worked on Rabane films, those who respected him, and even those who were influenced by him. The doc starts discussing Rabane time as a young child in his native Latvia, moving to the states- then detailing each of his films and the troubles/ tribulations of each. We also get discussing of running themes/ tropes in his films, like disappearing characters and strange plotting. And all in all, Who Is Bill Rebane is a most worthy watch. Extras wise on this disc we get the full two-hour interview with Steve Bissette, who is interviewed in the doc. More outtakes, a trailer, and even some bonus outtakes from Rabane’s films too.
One does have to be impressed by the passion and love Arrow video have put into making this boxset for one of the lesser know/ less respected/ at times ridiculed regional directors. And while not all of the movies here are great, there is worth/ memorable quirks in each and everyone- with all of them( maybe save Twister Revenge) been watchable and at times rewarding genre films. So if you enjoy quirky regional genre films, and have not heard of Rebane, or only had a brief brush with his filmography- I can wholeheartedly recommend Weird Wisconsin.Roger Batty