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New on Blu: WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? Review

WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? wasn’t exactly the burning question on the lips of curious moviegoers in 1989, and for good reason. The main problem was that the answer wasn’t all that inspiring: “Why, Harry Crumb is the same bumbling detective character you’ve already seen in a dozen comedies, but now he’s played by former SCTV cast member John Candy!” One of a handful of Canadian co-productions thrown together at the end of the tax-shelter era, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? sees Candy team up with director Paul Flaherty (brother of former SCTV co-star Joe Flaherty) for a passable effort that nevertheless helped launch Candy’s star south of the border when it was given a wide release by Columbia.

Unlike some of his fellow Second City alumni, Candy was rarely given leading roles in films until the 1990s, and even then only managed top billing in a handful of movies before his untimely death in 1994. Instead, the Toronto-born actor was usually relegated to supporting characters or ensemble pieces, often alongside his former TV co-stars. That began to change with the release of WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? and, a few months later, the blockbuster success of UNCLE BUCK (1989). This one-two punch lead to bigger lead roles in films over the next few years including ONLY THE LONELY (1991), DELIRIOUS (1991) and COOL RUNNINGS (1993). Now available for the first time on Blu-ray from Mill Creek, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? has some issues, but still features some enjoyable moments and a peek at Candy before he broke into the big time.

The main issue with a film like WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? is that it isn’t particularly original. With its focus on pratfalls and disguises (including some regrettable racist caricatures that don’t read well today) the film builds off of already established characters like Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER franchise, Frank Drebin in the NAKED GUN series, the small screen’s gun-happy SLEDGE HAMMER! and, most notably, Chevy Chase’s titular character in FLETCH (1985), among countless others. But even then, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? is more plot-focused than some of those other entries, preferring to reel in Candy’s antics and alter-ego characters so that it can spend more time following two separate criminal groups trying to outsmart each other to get their hands on the personal fortune of a rich businessman.

In the film, the Crumb & Crumb detective agency is famous for their crime-solving founders, but few of their talents have passed on to their grandson, Harry Crumb (Candy). The new scheming agency president Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones) assigns Harry to a high-profile kidnapping case to track down the whereabouts of the daughter of millionaire P.J. Downing (Barry Corbin). Enlisting the help of the missing girl’s sister (Shawnee Smith), Harry investigates Downing’s young trophy wife (Annie Potts) and her tennis pro lover (Tim Thomerson), and clashes with a police detective (Valri Bromfield) only to discover that Draisen may not want the case solved after all.

The cast is better than you might expect and appears game for this kind of broad comedic material, but the characters they’re given to play are one-note and well-worn. Aside from clumsy detective, the films is full of banal roles like the evil executive, gold-digging stepmother and tough-as-nails female cop. The nicest surprise in the film are a series of scene-stealing cameos by James Belushi as an annoyed bus passenger, Wesley Mann as a terminally bored butler, and Joe Flaherty as a boxing-obsessed security guard that Harry must slip past.

Further, the character of Harry is somewhat confusing–at first Candy plays him as a clumsy private eye who’s totally out of his depth, but then he occasionally comes up with surprising insights. For instance, Harry’s uncannily able to tell that a stack of bills to pay the kidnapper’s ransom is one short simply by fanning it, and later is the only one to hear the muffled cries of someone locked in an airport storage room. Harry’s actual level of competence seems to be always in flux. For what it’s worth, Candy appears to be enjoying himself and has some physical comedy involving a priceless pterodactyl egg on Draisen’s desk and a handful of memorable lines (“You find that crazy typewriter, and you have your kidnapper!” he says, looking at a ransom note of letters cut out of magazines). His various disguises are less inspiring–a Turkish hairdresser and Indian air conditioner repairman trade mostly on gratuitous ethnic humour, while a turn as a jockey at the horse races seems mostly drawn from an old SCTV sketch, “Angel Cortez, FBI Jockey.”

It’s no Canadian comedy classic, and doesn’t rank among Candy’s better roles, but despite some reservations, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? remains a decent enough time-waster almost 30 years later. Helping this go down a bit easier, Mill Creek’s brand new Blu-ray of the film features a fine and bright-looking HD transfer that brings to life the film’s rich colour palette. There aren’t any extras included here to speak of, but it does come in a nice VHS-style slip case, complete with weathered-looking cardboard sleeve with a circular “comedy” sticker that certainly brings back memories of seeing the box art on the shelf at the video store. WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? is a throwback to simpler times and is certain to prompt more than a few nostalgic purchases of this occasionally fun (if overly clichéd) ’80s comedy.

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New on Blu: SHADOW OF THE HAWK Review

Despite Canada’s rich First Nations history, our indigenous legends and mythologies have only rarely been explored on film. The 1976 tax shelter thriller SHADOW OF THE HAWK was one of the first to fashion quasi-mystical First Nation imagery and cultural ritual into a popular genre thriller, and though it’s not particularly authentic to those traditions, it still stands as one of Canada’s only true folk horror films. While not frequently seen these days, the B.C.-shot film was just released on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment, paired with the similar 1979 chiller NIGHTWING, giving the curoius a chance to check out this underrated horror movie.

In the film, city-dwelling businessman Mike (Jan-Michael Vincent) is surprised when his grandfather Old Man Hawk (the always excellent Chief Dan George) arrives at his apartment, having trekked more than 300 miles to explain that an evil sorceress (Marianne Jones) is trying to destroy the last of his tribe. Having been recently plagued by visions and nightmares, Mike reluctantly agrees to drive Hawk and Maureen (Marilyn Hassett), a freelance reporter who helped the old man find his grandson, back to the reserve. But their journey is beset by disaster–car trouble almost sends them over a cliff, dangerous snakes materialize while they sleep and a curious figure in a carved wooden mask follows their every movement. Hawk, who has grown old and weak, explains he must pass his role as a Medicine Man down to Mike to defeat the black magic that threatens his people.

SHADOW OF THE HAWK boasts direction by George McCowan, a veteran TV director who returned to his native land in the 1970s to handle tax shelter productions like the hockey love tale FACE-OFF (1971) and sci-fi cheesefest THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1979). Boasting a bigger budget than most tax shelter productions from this era, SHADOW OF THE HAWK plays out mostly like a ghost story, with some generally harrowing sequences of the heroes crossing a rickety swinging bridge and being chased by an eerie black sedan. Later, Mike has to battle a bear and a knife-wielding Indigenous warrior. Through it all, their evil nemesis appears to be less beholden to an indigenous tradition than generic movie voodoo–dolls, ceremonial daggers, snakes, zombie-like creatures and fire all make an appearance (alongside some weirdly sexualized Inuit throat singing). Still, it’s notable that Hawk’s own Medicine Man practices are portrayed as positive force against the sorceress’ demonic magic, that seems to lay outside Native tradition.

But what really makes SHADOW OF THE HAWK an outstanding Canadian folk horror film is the way it sends Mike on a dangerous physical and spiritual journey back to his own roots. The glass towers, restaurants and bus stations of Mike’s button-down world gradually melt away so that McCowan can use the Northern B.C. interior setting to create a sense of dark menace and ancient foreboding. From Mike’s early nightmares, in which the masked figure tries to drown him underwater, to the rituals he must perform in the latter part of the film, the general arc of the film has Mike coming grips with the supernatural and embrace his destiny. And though SHADOW OF THE HAWK doesn’t draw from more obvious First Nation menaces like the Wendigo or Dogmen, it’s depiction of pre-Christian mysticism and Indigenous tradition places it firmly within the folk horror subgenre as established in other films made outside Canada like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968).

For this release, Mill Creek has paired the film with NIGHTWING, a more typical nature revenge film about vampire bats that carry Bubonic plague. This overlong American horror production is of less interest to Canadian film fans, even though it stars Nick Mancuso (DEATH SHIP) as a First Nations cop who teams up with a scientific researcher/bat exterminator (David Warner) to stop his village being attacked. As with Mike, he’s torn between his roots and modern civilization, but learns more to balance these elements by the film’s conclusion. Directed by Arthur Hiller, better known for adapting several Neil Simon comedies for the screen, NIGHTWING is unsurprisingly talky, but does build to several good sequences, including a harrowing bat attack when the protagonists attempt to shield themselves in a chicken wire cage and a final showdown that erupts in fiery splendour.

Though Mill Creek’s release doesn’t include any extras, both transfers look and sound excellent, with SHADOW OF THE HAWK’s occasionally impressive 35mm cinematography and spooky woodland sounds shining through–a notable step-up from its previous MOD DVD from Sony. The fine presentation enhances the release of this otherwise hard-to-see Canadian horror entry, making it easy to recommend.

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New on Blu: CATHY’S CURSE Review

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One of the most widely seen tax shelter horror films will get a much needed upgrade when Severin Films unleashes their Blu-ray of CATHY’S CURSE on April 11. A fixture in public domain horror sets, this France/Canada co-production has only been available in faded, scratched and choppy versions–at least until this new release, which will give both fans and detractors reason to revisit the film to see what they’ve been missing out on all these years.

The first Canadian-shot film from French director Eddy Matalon, CATHY’S CURSE is an unabashed rip-off of child possession films like The Exorcist and The Omen, only in this case young Cathy (Randi Allen) is possessed by the spirit of Laura, her father’s sister, who died in a fiery car accident when she was just a girl. Cathy begins carrying around a creepy doll that once belonged to Laura, and talking with a spooky portrait painting with glowing green eyes. Ignoring warnings from a local psychic (Mary Morter), the family is taken aback when vases start exploding, people fall out of windows and Cathy’s poor mother is sent to a mental institution as Laura turns everyone’s life into a living hell.

Shot on the cheap in Montreal in the winter of 1976, the film isn’t quite as accomplished as some of the other Canadian horror films being made at this point during the tax shelter era. Laden with awkward dialogue, a confusing storyline and limited locations, CATHY’S CURSE nevertheless has a few charms which have only really become apparent on this new release. For the first time, you’ll be able to catch the fully uncut 90-minute version (an 82-minute US cut is also here, for completists) and the vibrant new 1.85:1 transfer really opens up the film–shots no longer feel cramped and confined, and the sometimes colourful scenes help perk up the action and restore the film’s much needed visual interest (especially for fans of gaudy ’70s wallpaper). In other words, it finally looks like a real movie, rather than something pirated off of late-night TV. Set largely in and around a snowy estate, with a handful of shots in chilly downtown Montreal, the film also now has a similar atmosphere and feel to other Canadian tax shelter productions like The Uncanny or  Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia.

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It’s amazing that a proper transfer can have such a profound effect on the viewing experience, and while I still won’t concede that CATHY’S CURSE is a forgotten masterpiece, this release at least tries to make a case for it. Seen with fresh eyes, the film’s minimal but occasionally bloody FX have a simple, DIY charm, and some of the nuances of the performances–especially from Allen–are now apparent. Though a few of the actors seem to have conflicting ideas about what the film’s tone is supposed to be, they still manage to work together and even generate a little sympathy for these characters, who really are a the mercy of the ghost that has taken over their little girl.

Severin’s release is topped off with a nice smattering of extra features. In a 20-minute interview shot in France, Matalon discusses some of his FX work and the challenges of shooting in Quebec during the tax shelter era. Now an adult, Randi Allen also appears in a separate featurette to talk about her experiences working on the film, along with her mother, who was the film’s costume designer. Together they share some nice memories and part of a scrapbook that includes vintage newspaper articles and advertising for the film. Finally, there’s an enthusiastic fan commentary from critic Brian Collins and filmmaker Simon Barrett, and Collins appears again giving an introduction to the film at the American Cinematheque centered on his personal viewing experience. It all rounds out a welcome and eye-opening release worthy of possession.

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New on Blu: THE MASK and BLACK CHRISTMAS

Canadian film fans will want to fire up those Blu-ray players and snag a couple of essential CanCult releases that street today. Not only are these fine films, but Canuxploitation site editor Paul Corupe (that’s me!) appears on both of these discs talking about the lasting importance of these two classics.

Until today, THE MASK (1961) has had a spotty history on home video, with only a gray market DVD from a few years back that looked like it was sourced from the old Rhino VHS release. All that changes with this new remastered and restored version, a joint effort between TIFF and the 3-D Film Archive that restores the film to its former eye-popping glory. Extras include additional 3-D films and a documentary on the life of director Julian Roffman in which I appear.

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Although it has been released on disc a few times in the past, BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is an essential Christmas horror movie that gets a definitive release in Anchor Bay’s new “Season’s Grievings Edition,” featuring a bunch of new extras (along with all the older ones) including great cover art from Canuxploitation logo designer Gary Pullin, a new doc that I’m part of, a 2014 panel that I moderated featuring Art Hindle and John Saxon (among others) and my “from the vaults” interview with Bob Clark for Rue Morgue magazine reproduced in the booklet.

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Canuxploitation on DVD: Winter 2015 Preview

It’s a new year with new boutique DVD and Blu-ray labels sprouting up to take over where the big studios left off. For home video fans, that’s good news, as it means many offbeat Canadian films may still have a chance to hit DVD over the next year, including some of those noted below. Remember that clicking through these links helps support our efforts is rediscovering classic Canadian cult film, and that the Amazon links on the sidebar are always updated with the latest new release announcements for your viewing pleasure.

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Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone / Krull DVD (Mill Creek)
Release Date: February 10, 2015
Read Our Review

Cinepix’s 3-D space opera is back on this new release with the like-minded Hollywood hit KRULL. This was released on DVD many years ago, so nice to see a budget release for those that missed it.

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Wolfcop Blu-ray and DVD (Anchor Bay)
Release Date: March 10, 2015

The new Saskatchewan-shot B-movie homage WOLFCOP hits both formats this winter from Anchor Bay.  

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White Line Fever DVD (Mill Creek)
Release Date: March 17, 2015
Read Our Review

Jonathan Kaplan’s Canadian co-production isn’t particularly Canadian but does have some solid truckin’ action. This is its first proper release, having only been available via Sony’s burn-on-demand DVD program.

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Class of 1984 Blu-ray (Shout Factory)
Release Date: April 14, 2014
Read Our Review

Be part of the future! High school exploitation classic CLASS OF 1984 gets the redux treatment from Shout Factory’s Scream Factory sub label. This season’s must-have release.

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