Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except
Released by: Synapse Films
Released on: April 10, 2012.
Director: Josh Becker
Cast: Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Scott Spiegel, Brian Schulz
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Made shortly after The Evil Dead and with many of the same cast and crew involved, Josh Becker’s 1985 low budget ‘Marines Vs. Mansonites’ opus, Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except began life as an 8mm short film. Eventually a cool twenty grand was secured for financing and many of Michigan’s finest sons were off and running through the woods. A quarter century later and this rough and tumble action horror hybrid hits high definition thanks to Synapse. Truly, this is an age of wonders in which we live.
When the film begins, Sergeant Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) and his tough band of leathernecks - Walker Jackson (Robert Rickman), David Miller (John Manfredi), and Tim Tyler (Timothy Patrick Quill) - are stuck in the ‘Nam, tired of the jungle heat and wanting to go home. A firefight injures Stryker and sends him home where he tries to get things back on track with his pretty blonde girlfriend, Sally (Cheryl Hausen), who has just recently forgiven him for not taking her to her high school prom. What neither of them realize but are soon going to find out is that a cult lead by a killer hippie who thinks he’s Jesus Christ (played amazingly by Sam Raimi in a great wig with black paint all over his teeth!) is running around in the area kidnapping people.
When Walter, David and Tim show up to visit their old pal Stryker one night, after saving Sally from a gang of bikers, they talk about old times, drink a lot of booze and decide to play with guns out in the sticks – but soon enough Sally and a few others are kidnapped, at which point they get their gear and head out to teach those killer hippies a lesson and save the day.
While the wilds of Michigan may not double all that convincingly for the jungles of Vietnam, some clever stock footage inserts and dedicated performances at least do a good job of trying to set the stage for the mayhem to come. When you consider that the entire movie was made for less than the cost of a new car these days, it gets easier to forgive some of the movie’s shortcomings and just enjoy this screwy little mix of Rolling Thunder and I Drink Your Blood as the fun B-movie that it is. With every penny up there on the screen, the story might be more than a little predictable but it mashes genres really well and Becker keeps things moving at a good pace. When there aren’t action scenes to enjoy there are some goofy jokes, quirky characters and hey, even a bit of random nudity up on screen so for all the film’s shortcomings it’s never dull.
Brian Schulz, who had a background in live theater, makes for a good leading man here, chomping on a cigar Fred Williamson style and exuding enough charisma to make the part work. His three battle weary cohorts are also well played, with one time Mr. T. impersonator (no, really) Robert Rickman stealing the show more often than not. The real star here, however is Sam Raimi, who just gets to cut loose and really run with his part. He’s got such a consistently maniacal glint in his eye every time he’s on screen that you can’t help but love him in the part, while improvised bits like the scene where he kicks a subordinate cult member (Ted Raimi) in the hand for handling the sacrificial blood just adding to the film’s nearly sublime air of inspired lunacy.
Synapse were pretty open about rejecting the first transfer for this release as it had too much noise reduction applied to it, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see that this freshly transferred AVC encoded 1080p high definition picture is a beautifully grainy beast. Taken from the original 16mm elements and presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66.1, detail is as good as it’s going to get on home video until the next format comes along. There isn’t much in the way of any actual serious print damage and the picture is stable and surprisingly colorful in spots. Skin tones look nice and natural, never approaching waxy at all, while texture is fairly strong here as well. There are no issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement and while the picture quality isn’t ever going to compete on the same level as something like Avatar, the image quality here absolutely blows away the old Anchor Bay DVD. Fans should be very pleased here. This is a nice film-like presentation of a rough looking low budget feature, and much like Synapse’s release of The Exterminator, it retains that look and feel, just as it should.
The sole audio option is an English language DTS-HD Mono Master Audio track and it sounds alright, though again, it’s important to keep your expectations in check and keep in mind the age, budget and elements available. Dialogue is always clean and clear and there aren’t any issues with hiss or distortion. Levels are well balanced and the score sounds good.
Synapse supplies two audio commentaries for this release, the first one carried over from the old Anchor Bay DVD release and featuring director Josh Becker and writer Bruce Campbell. It’s a fun listen and an informative talk about the origins of the film and a nice snapshot of the Michigan based independent movie scene that these guys were involved with in their younger days. The new commentary gets actor Brian Schulz in front of the microphone for a talk moderated by Mike Felsher about his work on the picture, what it was like playing the role that Bruce played in the short version, how he was cast and what it was like working with the cast and crew on the picture. They also discuss critical reaction to the film, what happened to some of the other cast members seen in the feature and more. Between the two commentaries you’re definitely going to walk away from this one with a serious understanding of the film’s history.
Up next, Red Shirt Pictures serves up a thirty minute featurette entitled Made in Michigan: The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except that interviews Becker, Spiegel, and the core cast members excluding Schulz and Sam Raimi (Ted shows up though). This is a well put together piece that covers some of the same ground as the commentary in that it explains the background and short film origins but it also tells some fun stories about how and why the title was changed as the insistence of the producer, reception to the film, how it found legs on home video thanks to the Prism VHS release and more.
Also included here and mastered in high definition from the original Super 8mm elements is the forty-five minute long Stryker’s War original short film starring Bruce Campbell in the lead role. It more or less follows the same plot and even features some nearly identical scenes but there’s enough that’s different about it that you’ll definitely want to check it out. Some of the Vietnam sequences are actually a little more convincing here than they were in the feature version. Bruce does a good job in the lead here, playing the character a little differently than Schulz does without hamming it up too much. It’s grainy and a little rough around the edges but all things considered it actually looks pretty good here and even if they had to change some of the music (it was originally made using music without permission from the rights holders) it’s a great inclusion to this release.
From there, check out a never before seen video interview with Bruce Campbell from 2007 shot on the grounds of his home in Southern Oregon where he walks about how he and Becker came up with the idea for the film on the way home from the Evil Dead shoot. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary and the featurette but hey, it’s Bruce, so you’re probably going to watch it anyway even if the video quality is a little rough.
Rounding out the extras are a Deleted Scene with optional commentary from Becker (it’s the infamous ‘puke scene’ and he explains why it was cut), the Stryker’s War alternate opening title sequence and a fun original theatrical trailer for the feature. Menus and chapter stops are included as well and as this is a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack release a DVD copy with the same roster of extra features is also included inside the keepcase. The reversible cover is also a nice touch.
The Final Word:
It’s hard to imagine a more thorough batch of supplements for the film than the ones compiled here. Couple that with the rock solid transfer and the fun factor of the movie itself and Synapse’s special edition Blu-ray release of Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except turns out to be a pretty damn impressive offering that comes highly recommended.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!