John Agar against the INVISIBLE INVADERS: The Most Fantastic Battle Ever Fought!

“You would see nothing! We are invisible. We are invisible, Adam Penner! Long ago we learned to change the molecular structure of our bodies. You cannot see us.”

It’s difficult to say for certain whether 1959’s Invisible Invaders has an awful lot on its mind, or awful little. One suspects the latter, but whether genuinely trying to say something or just trying to fill time screenwriter Samuel Newman’s hyperbolic prose (excerpt above) pushes a dozen or so hot-button topics just the same, bemoaning nuclear proliferation and the militarization of science on the way to banding humanity together to squander the colonial ambitions of a dictatorial race of invisible extraterrestrial whatsits.

The narrative here is of pretty simple stuff: Peace-minded atom scientist Adam Penner (Philip Tonge, Witness for the Prosecution) makes a stink after a colleague is killed while conducting nuclear weapons research for the government, but is soon at work building weapons for peace (sort of?) after mankind finds itself in the sights of the eponymous menace. Along for the ride are Penner’s daughter and secretary Phyllis (Jean Byron, Jungle Moon Men) and his pro-MIC colleague John (Robert Hutton, They Came From Beyond Space), as well as John Agar (The Mole People) as requisite strong-jaw Major Bruce Jay. Together the four work tirelessly to repel the invaders and save Earth, all from the confines of a tiny lab buried below the intractable wilderness of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

There’s plenty of parity to be found between Invisible Invaders and its contemporaries. That mankind’s unchecked scientific and military expansion into the upper atmosphere and beyond might invite an unwanted ultimatum from extraterrestrial civilization echoes the likes of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, while the unnamed invaders’ conquest and colonization of the moon as a base of operations recalls Toho’s color sci-fi spectacles The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space. That’s not to say that the ideas are ever substantially realized in Invaders, which treats them as little more than a bit of expositional window-dressing – a few big concepts to distract from the production’s own tininess.

Elsewhere Invisible Invaders reminds heavily of the earlier Sam Katzman-produced thriller Creature With the Atom Brain, in which an army of revivified and radioactive un-dead are unleashed upon the world by an ambitiously ego-maniacal criminal. That Invaders‘ own Edward L. Cahn also directed that picture should come as no surprise, nor the fact that both screenwriter Samuel Newman and producer Robert E. Kent were employed in Katzman’s script department at the time of Creature‘s production.Âč

Invisible Invaders may substitute malicious invisible aliens for vengeful ex-mobsters, but the end result is much the same. Having no weapons of their own which work within the Earth’s atmosphere (something of an oversight, methinks) the invaders opt instead to possess the bodies of the recently dead, who rise to visit all manner of cut-rate havoc upon human civilization. There are some reasonable effects takes (including not one but two miniature dam demolitions) cut into the mix, none original to Invaders, but the majority of the footage is stock newsreel stuff – fires, riots, and assorted other devastation. That supervising editor Grant Whytock (here in the fifth decade of his film career) was not also veteran of Katzman productions is one of the bigger surprises of the picture – between Creature With the Atom Brain and Invisible Invaders, the montages of destruction are practically interchangeable.

That’s not to say that Invisible Invaders doesn’t have its own quirks and peculiarities. There’s a distinctly nasty edge to the “us or them” aspect that dominates the film’s second act, with Agar’s Major Jay coolly disposing of a meddlesome shotgun-toting farmer (Hal Torey, Earth vs. the Spider) to ensure the survival of the team under his care. While the sentiment would become common among the survivalist doomsday fantasies to follow (the derivative yet none-the-less formative Panic in Year Zero comes to mind) it’s a grim turn for a ’50s sci-fi, though Newman twists it to relatively banal purposes. In Invaders the killing serves largely to ratchet conflict between the more intellectual Phyllis and the action-minded Jay, but the tension is short-lived – by the end of the picture the two are an item. Even the farmer gets a second chance, his body immediately taken over by an invader in an effort to suss out the good guys’ secret bunker, but is sidelined once more when he and his possessor become the team’s test subjects.

Invisible Invaders reserves most of its action for the third act, in which John Agar dons a radiation suit and a fancy wooden sound-gun, taking the fight to the invaders for god and country and what-not. As is the film in its other respects, the action here is pretty cut-rate stuff. Agar battles maybe a dozen radioactive zombies – only one of whom has the foresight to have brought a firearm (“We cannot be defeated. We have never been defeated!”) – and lays waste to an invader spaceship single-handed. The special effects, limited to a few opticals of the un-invisibled invaders melting into frothing goop, are the early work of effects tech Roger George (Repo Man, The Terminator), here working with a monster suit re-purposed from It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Details of Doc Penner’s newfangled sound-gun are eventually divulged to the rest of the world, the salvation of which occurs, as was most affordable, off-screen. One supposes that little more should be expected of a feature that conspires to both begin and end an alien invasion in little more than an hour, and I will confess to finding it all ceaselessly compelling as a child.

To that and, despite its distinct paltriness, I still find Invisible Invaders to be a perfectly watchable affair. A good deal of that is owed to Philip Tonge, an English actor whose substantial career had begun on the stage in 1902, who delivers his performance with a passion and sincerity well in advance of what the material deserves. Invisible Invaders has the inauspicious distinction of being one of his final films, if not indeed his last – Tonge died in late January of 1959, several months before Invaders went into regular release. The ever dependable Carradine helps as well, doing his usual level best in an appearance that must have taken whole hours to complete (what glamorous lives these working actors lead!). A brief scene as a stereotypical scientist (lab coat, test tubes) looks to have been shot almost entirely for exploitation purposes; stills from it were well represented in the film’s press materials. Carradine is only on-screen for one other scene, as the Marley’s-Ghost device through which the invaders deliver their surrender-or-else ultimatum, though he resurfaces from time to time as the (voice only, natch) vanguard of the invasion.ÂČ

Otherwise, the overwhelming silliness of the thing has appeal enough on its own. It’s tough to really hate a film whose alien invaders conspire to announce their nefarious intentions to the world at hockey games. Some game play footage was evidently handy.


Invisible Invaders looks great in its improbable Blu-ray edition, released by Kino Lorber just last year (a DVD is also available) and from which I reviewed the film. The new scan from MGM frames the film to 1.66:1, improving well upon the open-matte editions of the past, and detail and contrast levels tick up nicely. A few minor scuffs and bumps and the persistent stock footage aside, Invisible Invaders looks almost embarrassingly good in motion. I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to the provided commentary track, featuring B-cinema historians Tom Weaver and Dr. Robert J. Kiss, but its inclusion is welcome – Weaver is always a dependable presence, and certainly knows his stuff. Theatrical trailers for Invisible Invaders and The Magnetic Monster, also on Blu-ray from Kino, round out the disc. And for those less keen to purchase, Invisible Invaders is also streaming now (albeit in an older open-matte SD iteration) via Amazon Prime Video.


Âč Invisible Invaders may be the most singularly Katzman-esque production ever to be made without his direct involvement. In addition to Invaders‘ producer, writer, and director, cast members John Agar (The Magic Carpet), Jean Byron (Voodoo Tiger), Paul Langton (Utah Blaine), and Hal Torey (Crash Landing) were all familiar faces around “Jungle” Sam’s Clover Productions. John Carradine’s connection is more tenuous to this comparison, but goes back even further – Carradine had played under Katzman during his pre-Clover tenure with Monogram Pictures.

ÂČ Though credited as “Carl Noymann”, a mistake reiterated in Invisible Invader‘s opening narration, Carradine plays a character named “Karol Noymann” – also the name of the scientist (played by Edgar Barrier) who reveals the intergalactic anti-matter origins of the big bird from Fred F. Sears The Giant Claw. Both films were written by Samuel Newman, who has the name, in full, almost obsessively repeated throughout Invisible Invaders‘ early scenes.


Entombed for eons… Turned to Stone… Seeking Women! Women! Women! Edward Cahn’s CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN

Etruscan gladiator-slave Quintillus Aurelius rises from the ruins of Pompeii to reclaim his reincarnated bride in this occasionally odd and often rote science fiction horror, produced by Robert E. Kent (Invisible Invaders) for the prolific Edward Small (Witness For the Prosecution) and directed by B-picture genre dependable Edward L. Cahn (Creature With the Atom Brain).

Curse of the Faceless Man plays in a more or less predictable fashion, with a gaggle of Neapolitan scientists working to uncover the secrets of their discovery; a man, perfectly preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD (never-mind that the real-life inspirations for the film’s ‘Volcano Man’ were poured plaster through and through, shaped by the cavities left by Pompeii’s long-decomposed dead); as bodies start to pile up. Elsewhere artist Tina (Elaine Edwards, The Bat) is haunted by dreams of the faceless man, of his slavish imprisonment in the past and of his misdeeds in the present. On the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius Tina succumbs to her psychic connection with the faceless man and the pair, reliving their doomed flight of two-thousand years ago, make their way towards the sea . . .

This is another of those films which was arguably better than it needed to be, reasonably photographed (by The Outer Limits regular Kenneth Peach) and intelligibly edited, with a capable cast (including a perennially disinterested Richard Anderson, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the lovely Adele Mara, Wake of the Red Witch) who do little to embarrass themselves. The primary draw, then as now, remains the faceless man himself, a memorably blank make-up by Charles Gemora performed by the substantially buff Bob Bryant (My Seven Little Bares). He reminds of the meteor-encrusted astronaut of the following year’s First Man Into Space, albeit less grotesque. The score by Gerald Fried (The Killing) lends the beast a suitable atmosphere in its various budget rampages, knocking through doors and bashing in the skull of the occasional misplaced guard.

Curse of the Faceless Man isn’t a bad hour to spend all told, provided expectations aren’t set to high for it. Pseudo-DeMille-ian narration by genre regular and frequent screen general Morris Ankrum (Invaders From Mars) may put it a notch or two higher in my book, but this is pretty standard monster-on-the-loose fair, and perfectly average among its contemporaries. It may not sound like much of a recommendation, but those of you looking to scratch that mid-century sci-fi / horror itch could do much worse.


As of this writing Curse of the Faceless Man is available for streaming, and in HD besides, via Prime Instant Video through Amazon. The film is also available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber, who include a commentary for the feature by Chris Alexander.

Flying Beast out of Prehistoric Skies! Fred F. Sears’ THE GIANT CLAW to Blu-ray in April from Anolis Entertainment

Addition (03/31): Anolis Entertainment’s The Giant Claw (Angriff der Riesenkralle) is up for pre-order now, through Amazon.de and other outlets.


It’s been less than two weeks since German label Anolis Entertainment’s excellent Blu-ray issue of Ishiro Honda’s The H-Man, but they’re already at it again, expanding upon their Gallery of Horrors with an oddball monster yarn that’s near and dear to ExB’s cold little heart.

Fred F. Sears’ The Giant Claw was made on the fast and cheap under the auspices of prolific penny-pinching producer Sam Katzman and distributed through Columbia in the Summer of 1957, and though it superficially resembles the classic Charles H. Schneer-produced Ray Harryhausen effects ventures which preceded it (the first two of which, It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers were also made under Katzman) it’s the details that make all the difference. Starring sci-fi regular Jeff Morrow (Kronos, This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us) and actress and pin-up sensation Mara Corday (Tarantula!, Raw Edge), The Giant Claw is a more or less competent mid-century genre quickie with one tremendous exception: It’s special effects production.

To my child eyes the feature’s eponymous creature; an impossibly gigantic buzzard from intergalactic space; was the single best monster I had ever seen. These days I still love it, though it’s impossible to deny the overwhelming silliness of a giant space vulture with sharp, pointy teeth, flaring nostrils, bulging veiny eyes, and a billowing scraggle of a mohawk. With Harryhausen having followed faithful producer Charles H. Schneer as he exited from under Katzman’s supervision to pursue his own film enterprises The Giant Claw was forced to improvise, and Katzman, as was typical of him, spared most expenses.

The results were a noted embarrassment to the film’s cast, and well below the standards set by the Schneer / Harryhausen classic 20 Million Miles to Earth (which was in release through Columbia that same Summer), but have helped to make The Giant Claw a sort of classic in its own right. Sixty years on the film remains a relevant cult item, salvaged from the obscurity suffered by so many other (and sometimes better) films by its own iconic shortcomings.

Gif shamelessly snagged from Tumblr user SwampThingy

The Giant Claw will receive its high definition home video debut on April 13th, in a dual format Blu-ray / DVD edition as part of Anolis’ ongoing Die Rache der Galerie des Grauens series. The film will be presented with both English and German audio options, presumably through Sony’s own master of the title (a la The H-Man), and will likely be Region B / Region 2 locked. The full details, quoted from Anolis’ Facebook page, follow below.

Ja, ich weiß, ihr alle wartet auf unsere nĂ€chsten Hammer-VÖs. Und keine Sorge: Dieses Jahr wird es davon reichlich geben. Nur eben noch nicht im April. DafĂŒr gibt es in dem Monat, der nicht weiß, was er will, eine weitere GALERIE Veröffentlichung. Und diese bietet das wohl abstruseste Filmmonster, das die Welt je gesehen hat. Einen ĂŒbergroßen Vogel Strauss mit Punkfrisur. Ganz klar, dabei kann es sich nur um ANGRIFF DER RIESENKRALLE (orig. THE GIANT CLAW) handeln.

FĂŒr diejenigen unter euch, die dieses grandiose Meisterwerk noch nicht kennen, hier mal ein paar SĂ€tze zum Inhalt bzw. zur Einordnung in die Filmgeschichte:

Als ĂŒber dem amerikanischen Luftraum ein seltsames Wesen von der GrĂ¶ĂŸe eines Schlachtschiffes auftaucht, will keiner der Aussage des Wissenschaftlers Mitch MacAfee Glauben schenken. Dann attackiert das Wesen, ein gigantischer hĂ€sslicher Raubvogel aus dem All, die Zivilisation. Er schleppt ZĂŒge fort und frisst Teenager. Konventionelle Waffen prallen am Energieschild des Monsters ab. Als sei das nicht genug, hat die Bestie bereits ein Nest gebaut und brĂŒtet weitere UngetĂŒme aus. Ist die Menschheit noch zu retten oder endet sie womöglich als Vogelfutter fĂŒr eine Schar fliegender Monster?

Sam Katzman produzierte diesen berĂŒhmt-berĂŒchtigten Monsterfilm, in dem die bekannten Genrestars Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday und Morris Ankrum die Welt vor dem mit Abstand verrĂŒcktesten und ungewöhnlichsten Monster der 1950er Jahre retten mĂŒssen. Der Riesenvogel mit seinem vollkommen grotesken Design begeisterte schon Generationen von Fans und ließ die Darsteller des Films seinerzeit vor Scham im Boden versinken.

Nicht vor Scham im Boden versinken mĂŒssen wir was die PrĂ€sentation dieses Films angeht, bieten wir euch doch schon wieder eine Blu-ray/DVD-Kombo an:

Verpackung: Standard Amaray HĂŒlle (mit FlĂŒgel fĂŒr 2. Disc)
Bestell-Nr: 31077
EAN-Code: 404 1036 31077 6

FSK: 12
Bildformat: 1:1,79 (16:9)
Tonformat: Deutsch/Englisch DTS MA 2.0 Mono
Untertitel: deutsch (ausblendbar)

2-Disc-Edition (Blu-ray & DVD)

Extras: Audiokommentar mit Ingo Strecker und Thomas Kerpen / Audiokommentar mit Dr. Rolf Giesen, Uwe Sommerlad und Ivo Scheloske / Einleitung von Dr. Rolf Giesen ĂŒber die Spezialeffekte / Amerikanische Titelsequenz / Spanische Titelsequenz / Amerikanischer Kinotrailer / Super-8-Fassung / Bildergalerie

16-seitiges Booklet geschrieben von Ingo Strecker

Als VÖ-Termin haben wir den 13. April 2017 festgelegt, damit die Edition noch rechtzeitig in euren Osterkörbchen landen kann.

The Giant Claw (as Angriff der Riesenkralle) should be available through Amazon.de and other outlets soon. The film is already out in an excellent DVD domestically from Sony, as part of the Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection. The film’s original double-bill co-feature Night the World Exploded is also available, through Sony’s MOD DVD program or as part of Mill Creek’s questionably mastered (yet excruciatingly affordable) Vintage Sci-Fi 6 Movie Collection.

All Brand New! An Important Film of Our Age Starring Russ Tamblyn, Kumi Mizuno, and… Kipp Hamilton?

Tokusatsu Tuesdays is a regular feature relating to Japanese special effects entertainments and their associated whatsits, and a bridge, so to speak, between ExploderButton.com and its sister site, Eiga · Bouei. 


Just a short write-up for all of you this Tuesday. The artwork shared below comes courtesy of a trade ad Toho placed in the September 14th 1966 issue of the industry publication Motion Picture Herald, in which it serves as the back cover image (which is great, as it means I didn’t have to dismember the entire mag just to get a decent picture of it). The sharp two-tone design is a variation on the key poster image Toho produced to advertise the film to international buyers, and which served as the basis for the final theatrical poster art in territories like France and Spain.

The film itself should need little introduction. 1966’sÂ ă€Œăƒ•ăƒ©ăƒłă‚±ăƒłă‚·ăƒ„ă‚żă‚€ăƒłăźæ€Ș獣 ă‚”ăƒłăƒ€ćŻŸă‚Źă‚€ăƒ©ă€War of the Gargantuas, the kind-of sort-of sequel to the prior year’sÂ ă€Œăƒ•ăƒ©ăƒłă‚±ăƒłă‚·ăƒ„ă‚żă‚€ăƒłćŻŸćœ°ćș•æ€ȘçŁăƒăƒ©ă‚Žăƒłă€Frankenstein Conquers the World, received significant distribution both in theaters and on television worldwide and remains one of the best-known and beloved of Toho’s special effects productions. Toho have a fine all-region Blu-ray available, albeit in Japanese only, and an inexpensive domestic DVD is available which features both the Japanese and American versions.

Toho’s international key art speaks well for the film’s charms – two monsters locked in a duel to the death, the military amassed against them and the fate of a city in the balance. The film’s opening attraction – a malevolent giant octopus – even makes an appearance. Perhaps my favorite thing about the piece, however, is how also-ran guest star Kipp Hamilton finagles a third-place credit, right behind genuine stars Russ Tamblyn and Kumi MIZUNO. Hamilton appears briefly to regale audiences with War of the Gargantuas‘ enduring anti-classic lounge tune “The Words Get Stuck in my Throat“, before running afoul of a not-so-jolly green giant. The lamentable number is shared, below the ad, in its DEVOlved version.

Kikuchi’s GENOCIDE: Music for Insects to War By

Tokusatsu Tuesdays is a regular feature relating to Japanese special effects entertainments and their associated whatsits, and a bridge, so to speak, between ExploderButton and its sister site, Eiga · Bouei. 


Out of the string of grim and out-there sci-fi horrors Shochiku Company produced at the tail end of the 1960s, perhaps the grimmest and most out-there of them all was 1968’s ă€Œæ˜†è™«ć€§æˆŠäș‰ă€ Genocide.

A sort of precursor to the ecologically-minded nature-gone-wild horrors of the 1970s, Genocide finds a small island in the South Pacific serving as ground zero for clandestine biological warfare experiments, a wrong-man murder mystery, simmering Vietnam-era East-West tensions, and an apocalyptic revolt of the insect world as well. Drug-addled soldiers descend into trauma-fueled murder frenzies, fifth-columnist hotel managers letch, and scientists elucidate insidious insect intent from out of a groovy psychotropic haze, all while a lost H-bomb ticks ever more ominously away.

Needless to say, Genocide had an awful lot on its plate.

The production boasts plenty of talent with recent experience in Shochiku sci-fi – director Kazui NIHONMATSU, a long-time assistant director for the company best known for 1967’s one-of-a-kind kaiju goof-off The X From Outer Space, X‘s effects supervisor Keiji KAWAKAMI (The Thick-Walled Room), X and GokĂ© Bodysnatcher From Hell photographer Shizuo HIRASE, as well as X-actor Keisuke SONOI (Affair of the Heart), Goké co-star Kathy Horan, and long-time scenarist and Goké scribe Susumu TAKAKU (The Blood Sword of the 99th Virgin). Chief among the returning staff however, for the sake of this article at least, is prolific composer Shunsuke KIKUCHI, who had been tasked with GokĂ©‘s score just a few months prior.

Kikuchi’s work on Genocide is marked by his usual trademarks (staccato low-brass for action and extended muted brass for suspense and atmosphere, with ecstatic ascending motifs to punctuate the major plot beats), but it is also possessed of a nuance and subtlety not typically expected of the composer.

The latter is evident from the very beginning, with the main title’s more emphatic strains complemented by a Vertigo-esque layer of violins and flutes and the first tentative appeals towards Genocide‘s melancholic love theme. The theme reveals itself in full for Joji and Yukari (love theme), a restrained minute and 43 seconds whose judicious blend of high and mid-range strings perfectly evoke the fated nature of the two lovers – Joji, in over his head with a mysterious foreign mistress and jailed for murders he did not commit, and Yukari, faced with the prospect of raising their unborn child on her own.

As Yukari is to the greater film, Kikuchi’s bittersweet love theme is a glimmer of hope and humanity amidst Genocide‘s overwhelming gloominess, receiving plaintive reprises all the way through to the film’s doom-ridden finale. In Mankind’s Final Sunrise the theme emerges tentatively from a plume of nuclear destruction, a single violin with increasingly rich harmonized accompaniment, but its resolution is cut short by Ending‘s resounding and atonal piano din.

Cinema-Kan’s restored CD release of Genocide‘s score makes it easier to appreciate Kikuchi’s work than ever before. The film’s eccentric narrative seems to have compelled him towards more variety than his scores typically achieve, from the bright chords and jungle-trotting exoticism of Jungle Search to the insectine woodwinds and mounting tonal chaos of Revived Fear. Cinema-Kan went back to the original 6mm tape recordings to build this 42 minute release, which collects the film’s music in total for the first time ever, and with excellent sound to boot – Kikuchi’s laser brass is crisp and clear, free of the distortion I’ve become accustomed to hearing with it.

In addition to the requisite liner notes (in this case a heavily illustrated booklet complete with film credits, release notes, a listing of Genocide‘s past LP and CD releases, track-specific commentary, and a biographical section on the composer) Cinema-Kan offer a few on-disc surprises as well. The incidental music heard over the radio in the film is present in full, and what a weird mix it is. Lobby BGM is in the light chamber music style, while Radio Music 1 is pure glitzy pop, electric guitar and all. Radio Music 2 and 3 are different still, lurid and torchy numbers to compliment the seediness of the hotel bar they’re overheard in. Listeners get a couple of bonus tracks as well – a percussion-only alternate take for Jungle Search, and a recording of the isolated music from the film’s trailer.

Cinema-Kan’s CD release of Genocide is available now, through third-party sellers at Amazon.com and directly through Amazon.co.jp and elsewhere. The film itself is available on DVD, with English subtitles, through the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse sub-label as part of the four-film set When Horror Came to Shochiku.

Choke Canyon (1986)

Rogue physicist Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is convinced he is able to develop a clean, infinite source of energy out of sound waves. To prove that particularly interesting theory, he has set up a lab with awesome blinking doodads in beautiful Choke Canyon. There, he’s waiting for the passing of Halley’s Comet because he’ll need to somehow use the comet’s soundwaves for his experiment. Or something – the film’s rather vague about its ridiculous nonsense science, so we’ll just have to take it at its word. Alas, Lowell has leased the canyon from the evil nuclear energy corp of one John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), and Pilgrim really needs the place to illegally dump a huge ball full of nuclear waste there. You’d think the film would go for an “evil nuclear energy corp wants to destroy progressive green science” but that’s not happening.

First Pilgrim’s people – as mid-level henchman-managed by Lance Henriksen himself – try to buy David out, which he of course declines, for the time and place for his experiment isn’t optional (oh, please, don’t ask me why). Then they come back to rough him up, shoot up his lab with submachine guns and probably frighten him into submission, but only manage to make our hero even more determined, if now without a lab. To correct that, Lowell gets on his (non-metaphorical) horse, blows up parts of the facility (or as we know it, a couple of sheds) supposed to house the illegal nuclear waste and tries to blackmail Pilgrim into buying a new lab for him.

From there, things escalate further quickly: Pilgrim calls in The Captain (Bo Svenson), a man with “methods” as well as a flying circus job when he isn’t working as a heavy for an evil corporation. His day job will be important for the film’s biggest set piece. Lowell puts The Captain in a barrel; The Captain brings a mortar. Finally, Lowell kidnaps Pilgrim’s daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian) – who will of course change sides soon enough because what’s hotter than a little kidnapping, right? – and threatens to blow her up(!) which actually gets him his new laboratory, but certainly no peace, so the film will just have to culminate in a big chase scene between The Captain’s air carnival biplane and Lowell and Janet in a helicopter carrying the big ball of nuclear waste beneath them, followed by a tiny little punch up. The practice of physics is clearly more physically demanding than our teachers let on.

CC_001

Yes, all of these things really happen in Chuck Bail’s Choke Canyon, and the film truly is as bonkers as this makes it sound. Fascinatingly, despite making no darn sense at all and being the sort of family-friendly action film where automatic weapons, mortar and nuclear waste are applied in various violent ways without anybody ever actually getting hurt, the film doesn’t seem to be meant as an action comedy. It does play most of this awesome and inspired nonsense as straight as you can, which of course does make it much funnier than it otherwise would be, as well as even more bonkers.

Speaking of bonkers, among the awesome elements I didn’t mention when talking about the film’s plot (such as it is) is Lowell’s dress sense, which turns him into more of a cowboy scientist than a rogue scientist, what with his long coat, the appropriate cowboy hat, as well as a disturbingly close relation with his Bollywood approved anipals, a horse and a goat. For the record, I have not the faintest idea why the man has a goat in his lab, but he has, and he clearly loves it very much. In this context, the rather wrong love story between our hero and Janet looks comparatively healthy. After all, Choke Canyon teaches us, what’s a bit of kidnapping and threatening to blow someone up among hot young things?

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Then there’s the final fist fight between Lowell and The Captain, a scene that isn’t satisfied with just showing to guys beating each other to a pulp but also finds Lowell having to shout computations between punches, because of course The Captain comes for his revenge exactly in time for the big experiment. An experiment which for its part generates much pulsing of Lowell’s doodads (and probably his equipment too), a cheap light show, and the scientific revelation that Lowell’s theory works, “if only for a moment”. Well, he’ll have time enough to iron out any wrinkles in his computations, given his need for Halley’s Comet.

Now, all of this awesome, inspired nonsense doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing US low budget film makers are usually up to, nor feels much like it when you’re watching it. I’d really rather call this a nominally American movie, for while director Bail (a veteran of stunt work, as well as a bit of acting) certainly is American, and this was visibly shot in Utah, the film’s producer and co-writer is Greek exploitation film impresario Ovidio G. Assonitis (working for a company with a decidedly Dutch sounding name), one of the other co-writers is Sheila Goldberg, who was responsible for the dubbing scripts of various Italian genre films, and the final writer is the glorious genius we know as director, writer and all-purpose provider of the bizarre Alfonso Brescia, which is about as European exploitation style as any writing team can get. No effort is made by anyone to write (if “write” is what you do to produce a script like this) anything in a more American style.

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As a fan of Brescia’s peculiar sensibilities in particular I’m not complaining, mind you, preferring the man’s combination of the shamelessly bizarre with the outright silly played seriously to most other approaches to scriptwriting I can imagine; particularly since Brescia-style madness seldom is boring.

The great joy about Choke Canyon though is how the Italian writing approach and the mildly off acting (probably caused by the actors’ confusion about what the hell it is that’s going on in the script) collide with the not terribly cheap looking, and generally impressive shots of the desert and rock landscapes, and Bail’s very accomplished version of the classically – by 1986 probably rather old-fashioned to a contemporary audience – American way of shooting stunts and action, mixing approaches to low budget filmmaking that don’t mix all that often, providing the best of both worlds for a precious one and a half hours.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Banned Japan: From Tsuburaya Productions with Love

Given the very nature of the sort of cinema I gravitate towards its an unavoidable fact that every now and again I stumble onto something that’s banned somewhere, but this may be the first time I’ve ever crossed paths with a banned episode of a television series. The now-infamous episode 12 of Tusburaya Productions’ superior Ultra-sequel Ultra Seven ran afoul of the same cultural sensitivities that would land Toho’s Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999 in the hot seat just a few years hence, the result being that it has not been seen (officially) in its native Japan in decades. Those of us elsewhere have proven luckier. While Tsuburaya Productions have pulled the episode domestically and now (according to the interwebs) refuse to so much as acknowledge its existence, Yusei yori Ai o Komete (ă€ŽéŠæ˜Ÿă‚ˆă‚Šæ„›ă‚’ă“ă‚ăŠă€ / From Another Planet With Love) was marketed in foreign territories none-the-less. Those fond of Cinar’s mid-80s English adaptation of the series may remember it as the modestly spelling-challenged Crystalized (sic) Corpuscles.

The fuss in this case is all to do with Cristalized Corpuscles‘ requisite villains, a race of chortling backroom baddies from the nuke-ravaged planet Spellia who are out to fill their irradiated veins with delicious Earth blood (“This planet gives good blood!”). For a television show produced in a nation in which A-bomb survivor lobbyists are still counterbalanced against lingering stigma and discrimination the concept of bomb-happy galaxy-trotting vampires gleefully bleeding Earth-men dry is already treading on thin ice. While that narrative hook was likely more than enough on its own to illicit protest from victims’ rights organizations, Crystalized Corpuscles takes the issue one step further in its physical depiction of the Spell Aliens in their native form:

In retrospect it’s easy to see why the appearance of the Spell Alien – a gargantuan pallid figure with a sinister, expressionless face, covered in glowing keloid scars (lingered upon in close-up, no less) and raving about his desire for the blood of children – proved offensive. Even with my Western sensibilities firmly intact I find the presentation a bit tasteless, though it’s done nothing to lessen my innate personal revulsion to censorship, self-inflicted or otherwise. To that end I’m not entirely positive that the word “banned” is even appropriate to this case. Tsuburaya Productions have certainly pulled the episode from domestic circulation, but that appears to have been of their own volition – an effort made, no doubt, to avoid or mitigate any possible scandal. Crystalized Corpuscles was still made available to foreign markets, and well after the domestic moratorium went into effect. And moratorium be damned, even the original Japanese version is but a few clicks away anymore.

With words like “infamous” and “banned” weighing so heavily upon it, it’s easy to neglect the episode itself, which is second to none as an example of the heady ambition and audacious absurdity that mark the best of classic tokusatsu television. The premise is as ludicrous as they come, concerning a nefarious alien scheme to harvest the blood of women and children with wrist watches, but director Akio Jissoji (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis) delivers not just a rollicking pulp actioner, but an oddball satire of romantic cinematic conventions as well! Even the compulsory episode-ending Ultra-fight is handled with unexpected artistry, the battle cast in rich sunset color and depicted in freeze-frame style complete with audible shutter clicks. It’s as surprising a 24 minutes as has ever been produced for Japanese genre television, and with an intriguing cultural significance as well. One only wishes it were more officially available…

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Creeping! Crawling! Crushing! Bill Rebane’s ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ to Blu-ray and DVD next week from VCI

Update (6/13/2015): The original post continues below – received the Blu-ray on Wednesday and wanted to share some quick thoughts. Firstly, I really wanted to love this release. The film is a bona fide household favorite, and there was the potential, at least, to really knock the socks off the so-so presentations of the past. Unfortunately, VCI’s The Giant Spider Invasion is pretty terrible, at least in so far as the feature presentation is concerned. People will bellyache about the Mpeg-2 video encode, but that’s an utterly inconsequential technicality in this case – the transfer on-disc would look terrible regardless. The problem here is processing, processing, and still more processing. The grainy, scratch-riddled source elements have been practically sand-blasted, with much of the already modest detail the picture possessed carelessly scrubbed away in the process. Artificial sharpening and motion errors (a stuttered ghosting effect that appears from time to time) just add to the troubles – for all the improvements in color and framing over past editions, the disc just looks bad.

Samples are included below, in uncompressed PNG. The trailers on-disc hint at what might have been. The damage is there in the form of vertical scratches and plenty of dust and speckles, but the unprocessed image is miles in advance of what can be seen in the feature presentation. Unless you’re really, really itching to shell out nearly $30 for the newly-produced extras (the HD galleries, trailers, and Rebane interview that accompany the Blu-ray are neat, but only add up to maybe half an hour of material) then this disc is a complete pass. I never thought I’d prefer an early ’80s VHS to a modern Blu-ray release, but I suppose them’s the breaks. What a disappointment.

The Giant Spider Invasion – feature screenshots: 

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THE-GIANT-SPIDER-INVASION-BLU-RAY-500x500Does this film even need an introduction? Bill Rebane’s Midwestern big-bug epic is pretty infamous these days (the lampooning from cult program MST3K is, admittedly, hilarious), but was a significant drive-in hit in its own time. I remember seeing it on television as a kid in the late ’80s and thinking it was pretty much the best thing I had ever seen – the gangly spider mock-ups and trashy atmosphere creeped me out in the best of ways back then.

Long available only in editions culled from masters dating at least as far back as my first experience with the film, The Giant Spider Invasion is set to make an unlikely comeback next week courtesy of VCI. The label will be releasing a fresh DVD of the film (with tasty supplemental accompaniment) in wide distribution, but the big news is their web-exclusive (it appears to be available from their webstore only at present) Blu-ray, a loaded deluxe edition that’s set to present The Giant Spider Invasion in widescreen and HD for the first time in its lengthy home video history.

Supplements for the Blu-ray are stacked. Quoting from the VCI site:

  • New 2015 Documentary by Daniel Griffith – “Size Does Matter! Making The Giant Spider Invasion”
  • Bonus CD from “The Giant Spider Invasion the Musical” – 14 Rockin’ Tracks from the forth-coming Live Musical-Stage Play
  • Mini ‘TGSI’ Collectible Comic Book
  • The SUPER-8 Version (the original home media format!)
  • The SUPER-8 Version re-edited in HD!
  • Archival Interviews with cult-film director Bill Rebane and other members of the cast, crew and Super-fans
  • Archival Interview with actor Robert Easton (Kester)
  • Bill Rebane introduction by Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson (of Mystery Science Theater fame)
  • Extensive Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
  • Original Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots
  • Archival TV News Reports
  • Liner Notes written by Tom Stockman, WeAreMovieGeeks.com

VCI are set to present The Giant Spider Invasion at its theatrical 1.85:1 ratio with LPCM audio (VCI say Dolby Digital, but the DVDDrive-In review disputes this) and optional English subtitles. No complaints here. I’m fascinated to see how it all shakes out, and all the more so given VCI’s spotty track record (in so far as feature presentation is concerned at least). So long as this Blu-ray plays better than my 25-plus-year-old Japanese VHS I suspect I’ll be happy enough.

VCI’s less expensive (and less loaded) The Giant Spider Invasion DVD edition is available for pre-order through Amazon and other online retailers. For now the Blu-ray edition is available only through VCI directly. Both editions are set for release on June 9th.

Saturday Monster Matinee: Virgil Vogel’s ‘The Land Unknown’

A trio of naval researchers and an intrepid journalist find themselves lost in a prehistoric oasis after their expedition crash lands while investigating a mysterious warm water region in Antarctica. There they must contend with voracious dinosaurs, killer plants, and one crazed survivalist, all while trying to repair their helicopter before the endless darkness of the Antarctic winter closes in.

An alternately memorable and dull exercise in the sort of Mesozoic “lost world” archetype pioneered by Doyle and Burroughs, and summarily exploited by countless pulp authors of the Amazing Stories era, Universal International’s ambitious sci-fi / fantasy romp The Land Unknown is a film that never quite adds up to the sum of its parts. Penned by frequent television scribe Laszlo Gorog (The Mole People) and directed by former editor and Universal regular Virgil Vogel (Invasion of the Animal People), Land was conceived as a big-deal color affair (a rarity for the William Alland-produced sci-fis), but was produced in more cost-effective monochrome after the pre-production on the expansive prehistoric sets and effects apparatus exceeded the bean-counters’ expectations1. The resulting film, granted a little extra panache by way of Ellis Carter’s (a veteran of Republic serials) stark CinemaScope photography, makes fair use of its considerable effects flash, but is bogged down too early and too often by Gorog’s torpid dramatics. Out of all the science fiction thrillers produced during Universal’s mid-century ‘Golden Age’, this may be the one with the most lost potential.

That’s not to say that The Land Unknown doesn’t have its commendable qualities. With regards to the shear expanse of its fantasy world building it is one of the more impressive of its type and time, fondly recalling the endless studio jungles of RKO’s King Kong. Universal International’s largest production stage was transformed into a convincing primordial forest for the picture, and granted plenty of oppressive tropical atmosphere by a dense and perpetual haze of effects fog. The human cast’s Naval helicopter (seen both full-size and as an impressive large-scale miniature) makes for a tasty juxtaposition, an alienated artifact of the modern industrial age, slick and angular and brazenly artificial, lost in the film’s nightmarish prehistoric enclave.

Less effective than the setting, though certainly memorable in its own right, is The Land Unknown‘s modest menagerie of monsters, realized by effects technicians Jack Kevan, Orien Ernest and Fred Knoth with a considerable assist from the fine special photography of Clifford Stine (Earthquake) and Ray Binger (The Hurricane). A scale Elasmosaurus that terrorizes the (perpetually unprepared) survivors from its lake abode is the most technically ambitious of the lot, a distant forebear to Bruce the Shark that must have been a devil to operate in its own right, though the rigidity of its mechanics prevent it from being as threatening as was perhaps hoped. Providing a lamentable counterbalance are a pair of dueling monitor lizards (billed as “Stegasaurii” in the trailer), whose interjection of real animal violence only serves to provide a cruel and tasteless distraction from the production’s legitimate merits.

Easier to appreciate is The Land Unknown‘s star critter, an anatomically dubious Tyrannosaurus brought to bumbling and improbable life through a rare Hollywood application of the man-in-suit technique2. Like the Elasmosaurus, Rex is a technically ambitious creation, but fails delightfully in both its design and execution. In close-ups the beast’s considerable noggin fares quite well, with its blinking, strangely insectine eyes and massive jaws decked out with sharp and imposing teeth. Full-body shots reveal it to be comically outsized however, absurdly out of proportion with its stubby legs and abbreviated tail. Stine and Binger’s effective process work may put Rex into reliable contact with the human players, but the overwhelming unbelievability of the thing prevent it from being much more than an utter, if lovable, dud.

Still, Rex fares better in any of its appearances than Gorog’s writing, which shambles from one bland development to the next once the film’s promising concept is established. Beef-cake star Jock Mahoney (Tarzan the Magnificent) is a fine choice in so far as the film’s few action-oriented set pieces are concerned, but is given the dubious task of reciting flavorless chunks of scientific exposition and romantic gibberish (the two are often, and dreadfully, one and the same) in the considerable expanses between. William Reynolds (The Thing that Couldn’t Die) and Phil Harvey (The Monolith Monsters) are reliably on board, as a hunky pilot and an unstable technician respectively, while character player Henry Brandon lends some color to the character of Hunter – the alternately crazed / pitiable survivor of a previous Antarctic expedition. As dull and forgettable as the rest of the scripting may be, it’s Gorog’s writing for co-star Shirley Patterson (as Shawn Smith) that proves most disappointing. After a promising introduction as the strong-willed and liberated (“I always like meeting men,” she seductively smirks as she is introduced to the rest of the crew) reporter attached to document the expedition, Gorog proceeds to dismantle the character into little more than a series of predictable tropes. Patterson screams, faints, is fought over by Brandon’s survivor and Mahoney’s crew, and is proven time and again (with much more screaming and fainting) to be too stupid to be trusted to look after herself. Career be damned, by the final reel Patterson’s go-get-’em reporter has devolved into submissive marital fodder for Mahoney’s hero – score one more victory for bare-chested machismo.

Despite the irksome sexual politics, animal violence, and numerous other faults besides, I can’t say that I honestly dislike The Land Unknown. The mechanical monster unleashed by Kevan and his associates are fun and memorable even as their lesser qualities fail them, the jungle sets remain impressive in both design and scope, and that helicopter is one sweet looking piece of machinery. The Land Unknown just never adds up to much more than a handful of promising elements and a lot of forgettable filler. Rex deserved better.


Screenshots were gleaned from Anolis Entertainment’s limited (1000 units pressed) Region B-locked Blu-ray of The Land Unknown, which was released in August of last year. There are a few issues with the HD master used, which was licensed through Universal. Grain textures are obliterated into a bizarre and shimmering noise at a few specific points (the monitor lizard sequence a good example, though only a handful of shots are effected in total), and there appears to have been some sharpening applied otherwise. The overall appearance is quite strong, however, with healthy contrast and crisp detail. Improvement over past editions is considerable both in those respects and in motion, and the 2.35:1-framed transfer (supported by a strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode with minimal artifacts) plays quite well overall. I doubt The Land Unknown will ever have cause to look much better, and fans should be reasonably pleased.

An example of the weirdness exhibited in the background texture of some shots. Click for uncompressed PNG.
An example of the weirdness exhibited in the background texture of some shots. Click for uncompressed PNG.

Audio is provided via 2.0 monophonic options in both original English and German dub, both effectively rendered in DTS-HD MA. The English sounds quite good to these ears. Music and effects remain robust throughout, and I noted no significant damage or distortion. The German track is rougher all around, with notable high-end distortion and persistent background noise, and sounds quite flat in comparison to the English option. Optional German subtitles are offered in support of the feature. There are no English subtitle options. Supplements are limited a trailer for the film (English and German, both digital recreations), a considerable HD image gallery, and an HD gallery presentation of the original German film program. The package looks quite nice, with both the on-disc menus and packaging itself built attractively around various key art and still imagery for the film. Anolis’ limited Blu-ray of The Land Unknown is still available through Amazon.de and other outlets, though the price is relatively high (around EUR 20 as of this writing).

Note: The image of the disc menu below was taken with my digital camera and not captured directly from the disc, and as such is not entirely accurate to the appearance of the menu in playback. 

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1 Interview with actor William Reynolds, from I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-fi Films and Television. (Tom Weaver, 2008).

2 With regards to dinosaurs and their ilk, I can think of only two American productions that applied the technique prior – 1940’s One Million BC, which was so proud of it’s man-sized monster that it obscured it almost entirely with shrubbery, and 1948’s wondrously inept Unknown Island, a two-strip color spectacle whose wobbling, drunken theropods are among the least believable to ever grace the silver screen.

Die Schlacht der Stahlgiganten: Stuart Gordon’s ‘Robot Jox’ (1990)

coverFifty years following a global nuclear holocaust conventional warfare has been outlawed. Territorial disputes between the two superpowers (the United States and the USSR, here reborn as the Market and the Confederation respectively) are instead settled by a new breed of warrior – the Robot Jox, superstar pilots of the giant robot war machines of the future.

Such is the setup for this oft overlooked special effects yarn from director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), a film I stalked through the TV listings regularly as a kid. Plagued by production difficulties and long delayed in its release by the dissolution of the debt-addled Empire Pictures, Robot Jox‘s conspicuously Cold War-inflected smashy-robot future failed to click with either critics or audiences when it finally reached theaters in late 1990, more than a year after the opening of the Berlin Wall. I wouldn’t catch up to the picture until even later, when it received its video premiere in the summer of 1992. My tastes have shifted considerably in the near 25 years since then, and a bit of critical perspective has made the film’s weaker aspects more obvious than ever, but nostalgia is a hell of a thing. To the eternal 6-year-old lurking not-so-deeply within my psyche Robot Jox is still pretty much the best movie ever made.

Though intended as a more serious, thought provoking affair by screenwriter Joe Haldeman (author of The Forever War), Gordon’s emphasis on the more juvenile aspects of the concept and subsequent clashes with Haldeman resulted in a film that’s more a light sci-fi twist on Rocky IV than anything, and with hackneyed Cold War histrionics to spare. No-good Confed jock Alexander (Paul Koslo, The Omega Man) is putting a serious hurt on the Market’s territorial ambitions, stomping his deadly way through their fighter ranks and paving the way for a Confederation domination of the West. Only one man stands in his way: Achilles (Alien Nation‘s Gary Graham), the sole surviving Market ace and the last of his generation as well, soon to be supplanted by a regiment of genetically-engineered Jox.

It would be pointless to hash out Robot Jox‘s narrative meanderings too much more from there. Aside from some bumbling third act clandestine intrigue the film plays about as one might suspect, with the generational (and frequently sexist) conflict between natural-born Achilles and the Market’s new race of “tube-ies” (led by In the Heat of the Night‘s Anne-Marie Johnson) serving as prime distraction between the picture’s pair of bookend mecha match-ups. Traces of more substantive material occasionally surface – rumination on the human toll of even so alienated a brand of warfare as this, and glimpses of a society in which the bulk of the population are a dehumanized, commodified underclass (“bleacher bums”) – but there’s no denying that this is pretty childish stuff writ large (doubtless to the chagrin of its credited screenwriter). A few flashes of graphic violence, some swearing, and a couple of blips of MPAA-patented “brief nudity” are all that really keep the film from being a pure children’s picture, though I’m not one to argue that as a negative. Robot Jox is about giant fight-y robots first and foremost and, for whatever else it may leave to be desired, the plot here drives viewers from one effects setup to the next relatively painlessly.

And it’s the effects (courtesy of Academy Award-nominated VFX director David Allen) which remain Robot Jox‘s most admirable quality. The sum of it all may seem quaint to modern tastes, acclimated as they are to regular helpings of hundred-million-dollar whiz-bang CGI, but it’s worth noting that at the time it was produced there was nothing quite like Robot Jox in domestic live action – robots didn’t fight outside of cartoons, and certainly not with this degree of production flair. Allen’s methods are a tried and true blend of live-action miniatures and smaller scale stop motion animation, with some process photography, old-school pyrotechnics, and a few animated lasers to bring it all together. It all works quite well on-screen, particularly the detailed large-scale miniatures (filmed on location against the stark backdrop of the El Mirage lake bed), and I remember being enthralled by the ambitious scope of it all as a child. I’ll still take Allen’s stop motion punch-ups over the slick and antiseptic CGI of the present – that distinctly physical sense of craftsmanship is too often lost in the effects productions of today.

2013’s Pacific Rim served as proof positive that, despite its failure at the box office, Robot Jox certainly had its influence – and why shouldn’t it have? Bolstered by Allen’s keen VFX production, a good deal of enthusiastic dramatic silliness, and a resoundingly heroic, Western-infused score from FrĂ©dĂ©ric Talgorn (Fortress), Robot Jox achieves a certain degree of indelibility before its terse 85 minutes are through. Sure, it may put war machines with giant buzzing chainsaw cocks and space-bound mecha torpedo fights before quality human storytelling, but that’s ultimately part of the charm of the thing. Criticisms be damned. Robot Jox is awesome.


The screenshots in this review hail from the film’s German Blu-ray release, issued by Alive GmbH subsidiary Explosive Media in October of 2014, and should give a reasonable indication of what to expect from Shout! Factory’s eventual Blu-ray of the title (due sometime this Summer). The MGM-licensed transfer serves the film well without being particularly exceptional – there’s some noisiness in the film texture, but nothing unforgivable, and the image has more than its fair share of speckles, dust, and other unrestored incidental damage. Still, colors pop, detail is suitably robust, and the gritty appeal of Allen’s hands-on effects production is easier to appreciate than ever. The disc’s single-layer Mpeg-4 AVC encode is supportive enough, averaging 28.4 Mbps for the 1.85:1-framed transfer.

Audio is two flavors of stereo 16-bit / 48 kHz LPCM 2.0, German (default) and English. The BIG-sounding mecha sound effects could have benefited handily from the additional LFE bump a proper surround remix might have provided, but the lossless 2.0 encode serves the Ultra Stereo production well – the channel separation in those beefy robot stomps is lovely. In a strange turn, no German subtitles are included, but an occasionally awkward set of English subtitles are. No complaints here. Supplements are limited to an original trailer, a two-minute video image gallery, and an ad reel for other Alive / Explosive Media releases, but the disc is all region compatible (despite being marked ‘B’, this played without issue in my Region A-locked PS3) and the price is reasonable – Robot Jox can generally be had for EUR 14 (~$16) or less. The release arrives with an FSK-free slipcase and reversible sleeve art (with and without FSK label), and looks pretty good on the shelf. I dig it. Robot Jox is available now through Amazon Germany and elsewhere.

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