976-EVIL [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (7th October 2020).
The Film

Living with his overbearing religious Aunt Lucy (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s Sandy Dennis) since the deaths of his parents, bad boy Spike (Relentless's Patrick O'Bryan) is used to making his own luck, but a 976 "horrorscope" number seems to be predicting good things coming for him if he will just take a little infernal nudge to have "the nerve to take what he deserves." Spike is idolized by his nerdy cousin Hoax (Fright Night's Stephen Geoffreys) who is under his mother's thumb at home and bullied by juvenile loan shark Marcus (Back to the Future's J.J. Cohen) and his gang at school. Although Spike has called the 976 number more than once, he is suitably creeped out when the miraculous raining of fish down on the house has Aunt Lucy believing it to be a warning from God, and he resists the temptation to call again; however, frustrated Hoax stumbles upon the number and his whole demeanor starts to change from shy to confident to murderously violent as he embraces his dark side and wreaks vengeance upon his tormentors. Hoax's changes are subtle enough that Spike does not immediately believe Hoax when he claims to have killed Spike's ex-girlfriend Suzie (Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare's Lezlie Deane) who has mysteriously vanished, but the investigation of Modern Miracle religious journalist Marty Palmer (River's Edge's Jim Metzler) into the 976 number and its scuzzy creator Mark Dark (special appearance by The Howling's Robert Picardo) may have Hell freezing over sooner than later…

The directorial debut of Freddy Krueger himself Robert Englund (Eaten Alive), 976-Evil went almost immediately from the theater screens to rental store home video staple (in spite of distributor New Line's heavy promotion). It pretty much is as straightforward as it seems from the synopsis, with its quirkier aspects well in step with the surreal directions of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series around the same time; however, the more-seasoned eighties horror viewer might see the ways in which Englund and his leads Geoffreys and O'Bryan attempted to elevate the film beyond its low budget and overfamiliar storyline; and it does not help that twelve minutes of character development was trimmed from the theatrical version including much of the screen time of Hoax's principal Mrs. Martinez (Salvador's María Rubell) whose sudden rapport with Palmer is unexplained as is her sudden foregrounding as "final girl." O'Bryan's bad boy acquires depth quickly – just as one thinks that he will be damning himself by robbing his aunt of the money she is holding over his head until he turns twenty-one – while Geoffreys' put-upon nerd also brings his seething resentment to the fore just when other "bullied kid gets Satanic revenge" flicks like Evilspeak and Fear No Evil would have us rooting for him. The neon-noir look of cinematographer Paul Elliott (Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood) and production designer David Brian Miller (Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat) but the prosthetics and gore effects of Kevin Yagher (Englund's Phantom of the Opera) are of a rubbery nature despite the efforts of crew members and future K.N.B. Effects supervisors Robert Kurtzman (Wishmaster) and Howard Berger (The Walking Dead), and the film's few visual effects during the climax generally draw more attention to the outlines than the design work. Rhet Topham had previously scripted the somewhat like-themed heavy metal horror Trick or Treat while co-writer Brian Helgeland went from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series to the likes of L.A. Confidential. O'Bryan returned for the direct-to-video 976-Evil II.
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Video

Released theatrically by New Line Cinema, 976-Evil was released to VHS and laserdisc in a "Special Home Video Version" running 105 minutes, restoring Englund's original cut which consisted not of additional gore but of several dialogue scenes including the interview between Palmer and Aunt Lucy about the "miracle" and much of the principal Mrs. Martinez's scenes as well as some shorter extensions. When the film appeared on in 2001 from Columbia/Tri-Star, it turned out to be the film's theatrical cut. Sony's continued ownership of the film's home video rights meant a genuine shock when they deemed it worthy of a special edition Blu-ray release in 2017 (with other loftier studio genre titles to follow). Alas the HD master was once again the theatrical cut, and Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray also contains the theatrical version (92:22) from the same master, and it is quite a good-looking presentation of a film that looked murky with smeary saturated colors on home video and DVD. The grain can be heavy, but textures are evident in the clothing, costumes, and prosthetic make-up while the cluttered set decoration calls more attention to itself in HD (as do the ropey bluescreen composites and miniatures).

Audio

The Ultra Stereo track was no state-of-the-art mix at the time but it made use of pointed directional effects, some surround spread in the music (including some high end stings), but the track gets the job done in late eighties low budget fashion on the LPCM 2.0 stereo track while the optional DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does not seem like a remix but is faithful to the original track with no added elements to goose the soundscape. Optional English HoH subtitles are also provided.
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Extras

The major extra on both the Sony Blu-ray and Eureka is the inclusion of the home video version (104:39) featuring the aforementioned material deleted from the theatrical version – and the quality gives one an indication of how the film looked before its HD overhaul. Unlike the Sony disc, Eureka has given the audio an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo encode. The theatrical version is accompanied by an audio commentary by director Robert Englund and set decorator Nancy Booth Englund ported from the Sony release in which the actor-turned-director waxes enthusiastic about his "graphic novel horror noir" approach to the project while his set decorator wife points out details of the set dressing that are callouts not only to the characters and the film's motifs but also to the burgeoning romance between the two on the set. Englund reveals that he chose O'Bryan over character actor James Le Gros (Phantasm II), the necessity of casting Geoffreys, "hurling fish at an Oscar-winning actress" Dennis, and some of the other notable cast members (noting that Darren E. Burrows is the son of friend Billy Drago) as well as his working relationship with Yagher. He also points out some aspects that might go unnoticed by the viewer like the undercurrent of erotic tension between Spike and Aunt Lucy (noting that both of them had called the 976 line by that point).

New to the Blu-ray are a trio of interviews. In the interview with make-up effects designer Kevin Yagher (18:31), Yagher reveals that he was in pre-production on Child's Play, his largest project yet, but agreed to work on Englund's film because of their friendship and his youthful belief that he could handle it all. He eventually delegated to Kurtzman and Berger but remained on set for the effects-heavy days, and here he goes into some detail about Hoax's prosthetic work and how involved Englund was in its design and the several stages of the transformation (including more subtle touches early on). In the interview with make-up effects artist Howard Berger (10:40), the KNB front man clarifies some of that delegation of responsibility, with Yagher designing Hoax's applications and being on the set to apply them for several days before turning that responsibility over to Kurtzman while Berger himself was in charge of the other gore effects as well as the full-body cast of Dennis and the challenge of animatronic cats and herding live cats. Also included is an interview with producer Lisa Hansen (17:51) who recalls that she was living in Chicago screening and reviewing films for the cable subscription service Spectrum before falling in love with the production end during a concert produced by the company for its subscribers, leaving to form CineTelFilms with partner Paul Hertzberg, producing concerts films and comedy specials for television and selling them to cable while retaining international rights only to discover that no one wanted them. When they managed to sell the technically rough flick Courier of Death to international markets, they decided to turn production towards action films, eventually ending up with the script for 976-EVIL and approaching Englund to direct and star in it, although he only wanted to direct it. Deeply involved in pre-production of the film, Hansen also discusses the enthusiasm and energy with which Englund approached the film. The disc also includes a small still gallery.
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Packaging

The first print run includes a limited edition slipcover as well as a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Craig Ian Mann in which he contextualizes the film within the "Satanic panic" craze of films including the aforementioned Evilspeak and Trick or Treat as well as The Gate and Black Roses, as well as the notion of "community horror in the Reagan era" and conservative religious fears of the "techno-devil."

Overall

Horror star Robert Englund stepped behind the camera for his directorial debut 976-EVIL, and it is likely to find a wider audience on Blu-ray as it did when it dropped off the screens and onto the video store shelves.

 


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