A lot of good movies don’t get a mainstream release for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes the studios feel certain films just won’t appeal to a wide audience; other films are withheld for controversy and legal disputes.
Will Beach has braved direct-to-video hell to bring you back a selection of flicks that are far better than most major cinema releases in the same genre – despite having only received a very limited release on their initial run, or never making it to UK cinemas at all.
Black Dynamite (2009)
Black Dynamite is a superb modern parody of the blaxploitation genre that was popular in the ’70s. Michael Jai White plays the titular Black Dynamite: former CIA agent and kung fu master; basically the embodiment of all the blaxploitation’s biggest stars. It’s a hilarious homage to the genre, feeding off both the exaggerated stereotypes of the cultural landscape at the time, and the poor quality of low-budget action films. Everything from the soundtrack to the costumes to the deliberate mistakes make this a hoot.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
A horror anthology from a time when they weren’t à la mode, Trick ‘r Treat musters a terrific cast across four interwoven Halloween-themed stories. This quartet of twisted tales take in a sadistic school principal, a school bus massacre (and the ghosts resulting), a Halloween party with a twist, and a grumpy old loner who hates Halloween altogether. This grizzly tribute to urban legends and darkly funny twist-in-the-tale terror was so well received it garnered cult status, with a sequel now on the way.
Free Enterprise (1998)
Two geeky film producers are struggling through a mid-life crisis amid dwindling career prospects and relationship roadblocks when they bump into their childhood hero: William Shatner. Shatner plays ‘Bill’, a caricature of himself, determined to break into musical theatre by putting on a one-man hip-hop musical version of Julius Caesar. This marked an early appearance from Eric McCormack who went on to find fame in Will & Grace, and it’s delightfully bonkers.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a tough FBI interrogator in this thought-provoking, tense action thriller. The US government in on high alert when Yusuf (Martin Sheen), an American Muslim, claims to have planted nuclear bombs in three major American cities. H (Jackson) is brought in to extract the information from Yusuf by any means possible. It be would be safe to assume that its uncomfortable depiction of torture and murky morality was deemed unmarketable to a mainstream audience.
No – not that one! Not to be confused with the Disney smash-hit of the same name – and not a family film by any means – this centres around three young skiers who become trapped on a chairlift, and are forced to make life-or-death choices at the mercy of Mother Nature. If you loved claustrophobic thrillers such as 127 Hours or Buried then you’ll definitely enjoy this movie. As one critic put it, Frozen is to skiing as Jaws is to swimming.
The Wrong Guy (1997)
This Canadian comedy stars Dave Foley as Nelson Hibbert, a corporate climber who has a public breakdown when denied a promotion. When going to meet his boss, he finds him murdered. Assuming that all of his co-workers will suspect him, he flees to Mexico. The film was directed by David Steinberg, known for his work on Seinfeld and Friends, and co-written by Simpsons writer Jay Kogen, which give the story a distinctive sitcom quality.
Stretch (Patrick Wilson) is an aspiring actor and limo driver who finds himself in debt to a Mexican gang after gambling away $6,000. To get the money he needs, he agrees to drive an eccentric, cocaine taking billionaire (Chris Pine) around Los Angeles. Stretch is an action comedy, comprised of over-the-top stunts and witty one liners that isn’t afraid to be absurd, but indulges in cliches at some points. Co-stars include Ed Helms of The Hangover trilogy, and Jessica Alba, best known for being in every film of the noughties.
Woody Harrelson had a great year in 2009 with the release of the wildly successful Zombieland, but you’d be forgiven for not being aware of his other film that year. In black comedy Defendor, Harrelson plays a kind-hearted mentally handicapped man who takes on a superhero persona. Unlike the other superheroes we know and love, Defendor’s only power is the size of his heart as he tries his best to rid the streets of crime and drugs. Although the trailers try to bill it as a slapstick comedy, the themes the film deals with are of a much more serious nature.
Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road (2002)
Interstate 60 is a surreal coming of age story that follows Neal (James Marsden) on a trip down the mysterious Interstate 60, where he meets a range of characters with different dilemmas in an episodic format, after making a wish for “answers” on his 22nd birthday. The film stars screen legends such as Gary Oldman, Kurt Russell and Christopher Lloyd, and is a hidden gem that’s both funny and thought provoking.
The Boondock Saints (1999)
Critically panned as a juvenile Tarantino rip-off on its initial five screen limited release (and notorious for its troubled production – as depicted in acclaimed documentary Overnight), The Boondock Saints is one of the bigger direct-to-video success stories, after gaining a cult following and scooping $50 million in video sales. The film follows Irish vigilante twins played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, as well as Paul Smecker (Willem Defoe) – a troubled FBI agent tasked with hunting them down.
Snowpiercer is a South Korean action/sci-fi movie based on French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, and it’s a tragedy it never got a UK cinema release. Set in a future ravaged by climate change, where the only surviving humans live abroad the Snowpiercer train, a divide forms between the ruling classes that occupy the front of the train, and the poor that live in the end, as they battle for control. The film features an ensemble cast with the likes of Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer on board, and is a gripping, superbly-realised drama.
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