Monday, November 5, 2018

Abominable (2006) and Why This Bigfoot Film Matters to You by Joshua Jabcuga



What strange times we live in. With streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Shudder, one would think for the price of several monthly subscriptions, film lovers would have access to a vast virtual library of movies. Most of the services are not curated, and users are often faced with the dilemma of scrolling through titles for hours on end, like a compass needle spinning aimlessly.

Many of the digital subscription services are focused on creating their own content. Their logic (and business strategy): why pay a studio to license a film library when you can produce your own content and maintain the rights in perpetuity? That’s a problem if you’re a fan of older movies or low budget films that didn’t make a profit. Netflix isn’t keen on stocking their “virtual video store” with these titles. There’s really no depth or breadth.

And you’re expecting 24/7/365 access to those movies you “own” with your monthly membership? Sorry, pal. 

I refer to this phenomenon as the dreaded phantom movie syndrome (not to be confused with the equally dreaded Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace). Back in the era of mom-and-pop video stores, a store might have one copy of a specific movie for rental. A customer might go in every day in the attempt to rent that sole copy of…The Karate Kid, for example, only to be told the person who had the movie checked out had yet to return it. That patron liked it so much, they kept it another night to watch it again (or probably to dub their own copy). Rest assured, if you waited long enough, the movie would return to the shelf, and you’d be able to view it in the comfort of your own home. Keep in mind, this was long before the age of On Demand, or having something stored on your DVR. If something played on cable TV, you made sure you were home to catch it, because who knows when it might play again.

I can recall some early video stores that would have a ledger where customers could call dibbs on a title, jot down their names and phone numbers, and be next in line to rent the movie. Later on, at the monster chains like Blockbuster Video, certain mega hits that warranted two or three shelves of real estate like Jerry Maguire or The Matrix would push out older titles to what many considered the ghetto of the store, those sections ranging from Drama to Comedy to Horror. Many of us cut our teeth in those dusty wastelands. If Child’s Play was checked out, we’d just move on to Critters 2, no rush, because we knew Chucky would be back in due time. Meanwhile, let the dogs fight over the scraps of the shiny new copies of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. And was there anything more pathetic than seeing impatient customers foaming at the mouth, asking the clerks to check the drop-off boxes to see if a copy of Swordfish had been returned within the past 20 minutes? Savages. Can I recommend The Guyver or some Carnosaur instead? Better yet—you’ve never seen Sleepaway Camp? Here, this one’s on me. 
Point is, while the landscape of the local Blockbuster Video might change, usually once they had a title under their roof, if you waited long enough, you’d get your opportunity to rent it. There was no fear of the phantom movie syndrome—movies just up and vanishing one night into the ether.

You may know the phantom movie syndrome by other names, but we’ve all experienced it. Famous last words: “There’s no need for me to buy a copy of this movie, I’ll just watch it on Netflix with the click of a button whenever I feel like it because I’m a paying subscriber and –hey, wait a minute, it’s gone?!” Sorry Short Round, you didn’t really think you “owned” that movie with your Netflix subscription, did you? Nope, it’s the beginning of the month, and you just got purged, punk!

One day when you may least expect it, your “collection” of movies, your queue, can go poof at the whim of some corporate bean counter at Netflix’s Cloud (storage) City. Ask the fans of streaming service FilmStruck, which catered to the movie lovers who preferred deeper cuts and foreign films. Life was good. Then one day they woke up to a nightmare from FilmStruck’s corporate overlords, who left them with the grim message: “We regret to inform you that FilmStruck will be shutting down. Our last day of service will be November 29, 2018, and we are currently no longer enrolling new subscribers.” 
So who truly knows where old movies go to die, and where one might go to pay respect and leave flowers on their beautifully manicured lawns. If your altars of worship are digital, then so too are your gods. The important question is: will you have access to their spirits, or will they be nothing more than memories, like the local Blockbuster video store in town that went out of business and was replaced by a Laundromat or a Yoga studio.

The solution to phantom movie syndrome, the cure for un-curated movie libraries, and the antidote to only having access to movies released in the current millennium: support physical media. Build your own collections. If you build it, they will…well, they can’t take it away from you, I know that.

Buying DVDs and Blu Rays has become easier and more challenging all at once. Gone are the days of doing a Best Buy run and being able to find and buy practically any title you could think of, regardless of commercial success (or lack thereof), or of a film’s mainstream appeal. There was a time on this earth when, for example, you could walk into Best Buy and buy Bava! I long for those days.

Forget Best Buy, and use Amazon as an absolute last resort. Try ordering from the companies directly, cutting out the middleman. There are sites like Diabolik, Ronin, Kino Lorber, and Vinegar Syndrome that are vital to keeping physical media alive. One can draw some parallels between Blu Rays and vinyl records. Vinyl records had become passé, the red-headed step child, abandoned for the latest “advancement” in technology and “content delivery”, like cassette tapes, then shiny compact discs, then MP3’s and iTunes, and finally…streaming services like Spotify and Amazon. 
Vinyl enthusiasts, album collectors, they knew the score. Nothing could replace the warm sound of vinyl on the turntable, and nothing has, which explains why vinyl is doing very respectable business today. Blu Rays, much like a vinyl album, are often giving consumers and collectors the complete package. Besides permanent ownership of the movie, when you purchase a Blu Ray for your collection, you’re often getting all the bells and whistles such as the director’s commentary, the outtakes and alternate scenes, and you’re able to hold the piece in your hand. It’s tangible. It exists. And it’s real. Not just bits and bytes floating in some cloud.

Many Blu Ray collectors are familiar with the key players: Code Red, Shout/Scream Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Blue Underground, Warner Archive, Arrow, Grindhouse Releasing, Kino, Mill Creek, and relative newcomers like AGFA, Vestron Video, and MVD Rewind. I decided to take a closer look at MVD Rewind, who seem to be finding their footing and identity in the marketplace. It’s a hodgepodge of straight-to-dvd throwback fare like Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder to old HBO staples like Savannah Smiles to Abominable, which initially saw life as a Sci Fi Channel release. It feels like the label is gaining a sense of itself, with The Return of Swamp Thing, JCVD’s Lionheart, The Rock’s rehash of Walking Tall, and the announcement of Nemesis and Double Dragon. I’m not sure where on the map the Richard Gere/Winona Ryder romance Autumn in New York fits, but I can only speculate it was part of a package deal. 
Based off positive recommendations from respected sources, I own several MVD Rewind Collection titles already. Abominable was more of a blind buy, but finally having a weekend of downtime, I decided have a look-see. The movie sports the tagline “Some Things Are Better Left Unfound”, and a teaser like that is fodder for a critic looking for low hanging fruit. I’d never resort to such cheap shots (or would I?), but I went into the movie with no expectations and a clean slate, which is difficult to do in these Times of Twitter, where finding an angry mob of Debbie Downers throwing shade is just 140 characters away.

Guess what? Abominable is worth tracking down and I was glad it…found its way into my collection. (Is it still cheap if I hijack the tagline for something positive?)

The elevator pitch for Abominable is Bigfoot meets Rear Window. Written and directed by Ryan Schifrin, Abominable stars Matt McCoy (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) as Preston Rogers, the survivor of a rock climbing accident that confined him to a wheelchair (Rogers’ wife wasn’t so lucky). At the behest of his doctor, Preston Rogers returns to his cabin near the spot of his wife’s death, to help him with his mental therapy and to learn to cope. Rogers is accompanied by male nurse Otis Wilhelm, played by first-time actor Christien Tinsley (who did double duty as creature effects coordinator, and who would later win an Academy Award for The Passion of the Christ). Rounding out the cast is actress Haley Joel and Tiffany Shepis, who are throwing a bachelorette party in the cabin next door (and making sure Joe Bob Brigg’s trifecta is hit—the three B’s—blood, breasts, and beasts). Harry and the Hendersons, this is not. 
Abominable has memorable cameos from Jeffrey Combs, Paul Gleason, Dee Wallace, and Lance Henriksen, who are all having a blast. Unfortunately, the sum is not greater than its parts, but there are some aspects that really elevate this movie into something memorable. Look at that artwork for the movie.  That’s the work of Drew Struzan, the artist behind such iconic theatrical posters for The Thing, Back to the Future, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and the Indiana Jones franchise—just to name a few. Sure, he might have been slumming it here, but it’s Struzan doing Bigfoot, so let’s just be grateful that the movie gods smiled upon us. MVD participates in this trend of using mock slipcases to make their movies look like worn out VHS tapes, with faux stickers warning “Don’t Be Fined, Please Rewind.” It’s a fad playing on the nostalgia factor, and quite frankly, it’s a bit overdone on the scene these days, especially when it’s plastered on a movie that has Struzan art. If that’s your thing, cool, if not, under the slipcase MVD has the untouched artwork, and includes a mini folded one-sheet poster on the inside of the case. And at least these movies were actually released while video stores were still in existence; I’ve seen Blu Ray releases for Hollywood hits from the last year or two that are getting this “retro-video store” dressing, and it feels dirty and like the worst kind of cash grab.

The box claims this is a “Brand-New 2K High-Definition transfer from the original camera negative” with “5.1 Surround Audio. The score is from the director’s father, Lalo Schifrin, the legendary composer behind themes and soundtracks for Mission: Impossible, Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, and Enter the Dragon. The director also did sound design for Abominable at Skywalker Ranch, so viewers have good reason to believe this little B movie will sound tremendous—and it does. The picture quality is remarkable, too. 
On the directory’s commentary, Schifrin name checks influences such as Alien, Jaws, and Pumpkinhead, and he’s done his homework, trying his best to make a compelling picture on a tiny fraction of the budget of the movies he’s chasing. Schifrin cites Friday the 13th Part IV several times; Abominable has more than a few dashes of the slasher genre sprinkled in its recipe. This Bigfoot creature stalks and kills the girls next door one by one, like the lovechild of Jason Voorhees and Chewbacca.

While there are some effective and inventive gore gags in Abominable, the real question is: how does the monster look in this creature feature? Knowing they were working on a limited budget, I will say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but Schifrin is nothing if not self-aware and conscious of this. During an introduction filmed for the MVD Rewind Collection Blu Ray, Schifrin discusses this new cut of the film with improved CGI-effects and enhanced color timing and correction. Much of the improved CGI was used to tweak the creature’s eyes, to make them more beady and menacing on that massive head. They had limitations, but the film was shot to look like a studio film, and for the most part, they succeeded.

I will always find practical effects charming and more desirable to CGI, and it’s great fun seeing this Bigfoot creature lumbering around. You can’t get heft like that with CGI…that’s all man-in-suit action, baby. Even if the man-in-suit doesn’t always work in Abominable, it’s admirable they attempted it. The creature’s teeth, which are like long, jagged fangs, were a little too goofy for my tastes at times, a bit too overexposed, but c’mon, this is a Bigfoot movie, not Casablanca. The world would be a better place with more movies in existence like Abominable, and thanks to MVD Rewind Collection, it’s getting a second lease on life. 
Should you roll the dice and wait for this film to pop up on a digital streaming service? That may prove to be as fleeting as a Sasquatch sighting. If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d say follow my Bigfoot-steps and add Abominable to your physical media collection. You can find it for about $15 bucks, which is a fair price. The label should be commended for their loving presentation here. It’s jacked to the gills, containing the Blu Ray and DVD, the new cut of the film, along with the original 2005 version, a new director’s commentary, a making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes, and bloopers.

I’ve saved the best supplement for last. The Abominable package contains “Basil & Mobius: No Rest for the Wicked”, which is a short film (just over 15 minutes in length) from writer-director Ryan Schifrin. This is nearly worth the price of admission by itself, as it stars Zachari Levi, Ray Park (Darth Maul!), Malcolm McDowell and Kane Hodder (Jason!), and it’s balls-to-the-wall fun. There’s even a real life monkey performing martial arts. Yes, you read that right.

Money doesn’t grow on trees for most of us, and it’s often critical to consider where and how we spend it. Do you really need Abominable on Blu Ray? Maybe, maybe not. Are there far better movies worthy of a Blu Ray release? Maybe, maybe not, it’s subjective (Although I promise if I’d seen this movie when I was 13 years old, I would have thought it was Citizen Kane or The Godfather). When you plop down your hard earned 15 bucks for a Blu Ray like this and support the label, you’re taking a bit of a stand towards the resurrection (and like vinyl albums, hopefully the resurgence) of physical media. If companies like MVD Rewind can start turning a decent profit, maybe they’ll continue releasing films, ones that are even more obscure.

Jot your name down on the ledger. Vote with your dollars. Maybe your little lost movie will be next in line. And if you’re lucky enough to get that movie released on Blu Ray, I promise no one will make it vanish in the middle of the night.

Joshua Jabcuga is a freelance writer who has contributed to Kevin Smith's MoviePoopShoot site, ChuckPalahniuk.net, Cemetery Dance magazine, Scott Tipton's Comics101 Web site, LitReactor.com, Doomed Magazine, and Blastoff Comics.com. Jabcuga has written three comic book miniseries for IDW Publishing, Scarface: The Devil in Disguise, The Mummy: The Rise and Fall of Xango's Ax, and Bubba Ho-Tep and the Cosmic Bloodsuckers. Follow @Jabcuga on Twitter. 

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