• Zodiac Killer, The



    Released by: AGFA/Something Weird
    Released on: July 25, 2017
    Directed by: Tom Hanson
    Cast: Hal Reed, Bob Jones, Ray Lynch, Tom Pittman, Mary Darrington, Frank Sanabek, Ed Quigley, Bertha Dahl, Dion Marinkovich, Doodles Weaver, Gloria Gunn, Richard Styles
    Year: 1971
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    The Movies:

    The Zodiac Killer: As its title suggests, The Zodiac Killer is an attempt to tell the story of the real-life San Francisco killer of the same name but with a fictionalized bent, a necessity given the fact that the killer was still at large and his identity unknown (something that remains true to this day). It begins by presenting two red herrings: Jerry (Hal Reed), a postal worker who prefers animals to people; and Grover (Bob Jones), a divorcé whose wife has denied him access to his only child. Both men have negative run-ins with women, Jerry while delivering mail, Grover while trying to get laid at the local bar. Grover is a truck driver who puts on a toupee and pretends to be a businessman in the hopes of intimate encounters with women. But one night, his act goes awry when one of the women he’s hitting on accidentally knocks his toupee off, leading the bar’s patrons to make fun of him. After threatening to kill the woman who touched his “hair,” he is removed by Jerry. Jerry, on the other hand, loses his favorite pet rabbit. The fact that he’s sexually assaulted by a woman while on his rounds does nothing to lessen his anger at humanity or women in general, though his anger is more equal opportunity than Grover’s. Meanwhile, a mysterious killer is murdering lovers parked in remote places in the area. But which man, Grover or Jerry, is the culprit? After an intense first act, the film kills off the man who isn’t the killer to reveal the man who is, and things only get crazier from there.

    The Zodiac Killer is a fascinating look at one of history’s most bizarre and frightening mysteries. It incorporates an unusual number of actual facts into its narrative and then weaves a fictional story around those facts. Most of the Zodiac’s murders are covered with only minor details changed. Yet, additional murders are added. The result is a film that acts as a window into another time, though with a panache and at a pace that ensures it never tips over into dullsville.

    Make no mistake about it, however: This is a z-grade production with z-grade production values. What sets it apart isn’t superior acting (though the over-the-top acting doesn’t hurt it any), nor the set design (it was shot on whatever real locations were available to the crew), nor even the direction (which is perfectly serviceable without being particularly noticeable). It’s about the script. True, its psychological approach is that found in any dime-store pulp fiction, but that’s exactly what makes it work. This is a no-budget drive-in flick with charm and charisma to boot. It moves at a breakneck speed in part because everything comes together so well.

    Another Son of Sam: According to the trivia in its IMDB listing, Another Son of Sam was allegedly filmed in 1975 but not released until 1977, which would make its similarities to John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1977) all the more striking. The claim is hard to believe, however, for several reasons: One, the onscreen information that opens the film goes up to 1977 and the title refers to a killer who didn’t begin his murder spree until 1976. The disco scene at the beginning is far more reminiscent of 1977 than it is 1975, as are many of the hair and clothing styles. Then there are the above-mentioned similarities to Halloween. Sure, all of this could be coincidental—and the film could be prescient—but it seems rather unlikely. Also, about that information that opens the film, it too is dubious (Jack the Ripper murdered 14 prostitutes? not according to historians), so take it with a grain of salt.

    The film begins in earnest—after an exciting speedboat ride followed by a musical performance from Johnny Charro as himself—when a mental case named Harvey escapes from the psych ward of a hospital by killing some orderlies and attacking a doctor (Cynthia Stewart). That doctor’s boyfriend (Russ Dubuc) also happens to be a police lieutenant, but his captain (Robert McCourt) believes he may be too close to the case and assigns him to instead investigate some stolen money at a nearby college. There, he happens to stumble upon Harvey, who has hidden in a dormitory room and murdered one of the students. Before long, police have the place surrounded; unfortunately, Harvey has taken two girls hostage, and catching him proves to be more difficult than anyone imagined.

    Another Son of Sam is an unintentional hoot, at least most of the time. (When it isn’t being funny, it’s just dull, making its 72 minutes seem interminable at times.) Transition shots that involve freeze frames only enhance the laughter, as do the silly music cues (all of which are described differently in the subtitles). One must question what the director was thinking, particularly in having dialogue continue after said frames freeze… Direction is hysterically bad, from the opening speedboat POV to the various close-ups of the killer’s eyes (Bela Lugosi he ain’t). Then there’s Johnny Charro’s performance of “Never Said Goodbye.” Be sure to watch with the subtitles on to get the full effect.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The Zodiac Killer represents the convergence of Mike Vraney’s legendary Something Weird Video label and non-profit genre preservation studio AGFA. The two companies have jointly released The Zodiac Killer with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition at its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The transfer comes from a 4K scan taken directly from the only known 35mm print, which in turn was blown up from the film’s original 16mm camera negative, now considered lost. The film looks exactly like one would expect given the source material. Anyone who has seen other 16mm-derived films on Blu (such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1923; The Phantom of the Opera, 1925; or The Faces of Death, 1978) will appreciate the image for what it is. There’s more grain and less detail than the average 35mm offering, but the image manages to be beautiful in its own way, particularly given that AGFA didn’t feel the need to scrub away any of the film’s visual faults. There are a few scratches, there’s some dirt and debris, and there’s some speckling, all of which just add to the filmic experience. Color reproduction is decent, and grain is entirely organic. Blacks do result in some crush, but that has everything to do with the 16-to-35mm conversion and nothing to do with the transfer. This is a pleasing presentation that recreates the drive-in feel on your television, and that can’t be overstated.

    Another Son of Sam, on the other hand, is a 2K scan taken directly from a 35mm print. Presented in 1080p, its aspect ratio appears to be 1.78:1. The film was clearly shot in 35mm, as it features considerably more detail and grain is less prevalent than in The Zodiac Killer. In fact, everywhere you look, there’s detail to be seen, particularly in the external shots. As various characters walk outdoors, notice the trees in the background and just how much detail they contain; the image is surprisingly depthy despite coming from a less than pristine print. There are scratches and specks galore, none of which should harm the viewing experience any. There are other faults as well, particularly at the beginning, which appears to have some minor damage from moisture. The only real drawback is that the color is faded to brown. There are a few spots where it pops out a bit, such as when two female characters are walking through a rose garden. Otherwise, it’s practically nonexistent. Still, the image retains the same drive-in feel that graces The Zodiac Killer, and given that this is merely an extra, a freebie if you will, one can’t judge it too harshly.

    The films are placed on a single BD50, as well as on a standard DVD. The standard DVD looks good but doesn’t compare to the BD; it also features a few minor compression issues given the amount of material that’s been included.

    Both films feature lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. They are generally defect free, with little hiss or dropout despite the age and nature of the materials used. Credit AGFA, who have done a superlative job in bringing these titles to Blu-ray. Musical cues and dialogue mix well with little to no competition. For people who are deaf or hearing impaired (or who like to watch films while also reading what’s being said), there are subtitles included for both productions. There’s also an audio commentary on the main feature; it includes hosts Joseph A. Ziemba and Sebastian del Castillo of AGFA. The two men describe the purpose of AGFA and how they got into film preservation, as well as how The Zodiac Killer came about on Blu. After describing the influence of and their relation to Something Weird Video, they discuss the work it took to make The Zodiac Killer look as good as it does without tampering with its filmic appearance. They then watch the film with director Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick. Sometimes they describe the action that unfolds onscreen, but more often than not they use it to lead into discussions about specifics concerning the film. They discuss how the film came about, where they shot it and the issues they faced, the actors, David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), and so much more.

    Extras include a featurette titled “Let’s Get This Guy: The Origin of The Zodiac Killer,” which features interviews with Hanson and Nedwick and runs 3:35. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary while introducing some new information. It’s a must watch, not only for film buffs but for historians interested in the real Zodiac Killer as well.

    The on-screen extras conclude with “Tabloid-Horror Trailers.” These include Carnival of Blood (1970; 1:52), The Manson Massacre (1971; :31), The Other Side of Madness (1971; 1:50), Three on a Meathook (1972; :31), and The Toolbox Murders (1978; 2:14).

    There are also several print extras included, such as reversible cover art and a booklet containing an interview with director Hanson conducted by film historian Chris Poggiali. This is the perfect addendum to the release, featuring yet more information for anyone interested in learning all there is to know about The Zodiac Killer. The booklet includes information about the transfers, production credits, an “About AGFA” section, and an “About Something Weird” section that features a dedication to the company’s late founder, Mike Vraney. Stills from the film are also included.

    Note that the discs are region free.

    The Final Word:

    The Zodiac Killer is a real treat for fans of weird and obscure drive-in relics. Though the films may come from less than pristine sources, they both have their positives. To best recreate the drive-in feel, watch first The Zodiac Killer, followed by the trailers, followed by Another Son of Sam. Then sit down and enjoy the other extras. The films vary in picture quality while the sound is pretty solid, but both are appropriately ‘grindhouse’ given the source materials. Considering that you get two films for the price of one as well as a host of extras, this is a traditional Something Weird release but in the Blu-ray format and is a steal given the price. If this is what we can expect, let’s pray that AGFA and Something Weird team up for many more releases in the future.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out early next year.


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