Videodrone: Sam Fuller’s ‘China Gate’ and Stuart Gordon’s ‘From Beyond’

I’ve been waiting quite literally for decades for a widescreen release of Sam Fuller’s China Gate (Olive) on home video. Long overdue on disc, it has never been made available widescreen on video of any kind, relegated to pan-and-scan on the long out-of-print VHS release and on every TV or cable showing I’ve ever found. And I’ve been looking for a long time. Olive Films, working with Paramount, has finally offered the complete film on home video.

Set in the early years of the Vietnam War (when it was still called Indochina) with a multinational platoon of French, American, and German career soldiers, it’s classic Fuller pulp storytelling. Angie Dickinson gets a memorable introduction — all long legs stretched out over a bombed-out saloon in the rubble of a Vietnamese village — and an even better character as Lucky Legs. She’s the daughter of an American soldier and a Vietnamese mother and the mother of an adorable boy who received all the Asian characteristics that skipped over her. Don’t fret that she doesn’t look Asian, because that’s essential to the story: her G.I. husband, the gruff Sgt. Brock (Gene Barry), fell in love with a woman who looked American but his bigotry reared up when he took one look at his newborn son and he walked out on wife and child both.

That makes for a volatile situation when the estranged couple teams up for a mission to blow up a North Vietnamese munitions dump, using her booze smuggling operation as cover for their mission. He’s doing it for duty, she’s doing it for an American passport for her son.

Nat ‘King’ Cole co-stars as a fellow American soldier disgusted by Barry’s racist rejection of his son — he’s not much of an actor but he creates a strong impression on screen (watch him bite back a scream when he steps on a punji stick) and sings the film’s melancholy theme song — and Lee Van Cleef is Dickinson’s Vietnamese cousin, a true red communist commander who wants Lucky to move north and join his side.

Fuller was a real American maverick who wrapped politics and social commentary into his punchy, two-fisted stories, working within the Hollywood culture when it suited his projects and outside the studio system as his style and subject matter evolved. His patriotism made him both a prime cinematic cold warrior and one of the most perceptive and insistent critics of racism. China Gate is filled with both anti-communist rhetoric and an anti-racism message, all in a platoon mission drama shot in California forests and studio sets standing in for the Vietnam jungle.

The CinemaScope image looks to my eyes a little distorted in parts, though I believe that may be in the film itself and not the video mastering. Otherwise it is a well-mastered version of an archival print. A couple of scenes show a shower of light scuffing and heavy wear, and the scenes with stock footage and optical zooms are significantly softer than the rest of the film, but the bulk of the black and white film looks sharp and has a stable image and solid contrasts. It deserves a restoration, but after all these years, I’m happy to get something that looks this good.

Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

From Beyond (Scream Factory), the second feature from director Stuart Gordon, reunites the creative team from Re-Animator for another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation juiced up with modern science fiction flourish, horror-movie weirdness, and psycho-sexual energy.

Gordon connected with the Lovecraft sensibility better than any other filmmaker before or since, embracing the idea that knowledge of the beyond was both addictive and self-destructive. This kind of knowledge will drive you mad. In “From Beyond,” it’s also a virus that feeds the id. To see into the other dimension, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his lab assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs, in a Muskatonic University shirt – nice touch) create the Resonator, a device that stimulates the pineal gland, a “dormant sensory organ” that eventually sprouts into an unmistakable phallic symbol (though it looks more like a bloody asparagus spear than a sex organ). Before Crawford can shut the thing down, Pretorius is dead, his head devoured by some creature from beyond, and Combs is a raving wreck accused of murder. And that’s just the prologue.

Barbara Crampton, who played the victimized object of desire in Re-Animator, swaps roles with Combs this time to play a “girl wonder” psychiatrist who recreates the experiment to cure Crawford. Forget scientific objectivity, she’s exhilarated by the experience: “I have to see more! Feel more!” Meanwhile the border between our dimension and the world of Lovecraftian creatures breaks down and Pretorius, who has crossed over and mutated into a fleshy, rapacious creature of unleashed sexual appetites, takes charge of the machine. Ken Foree (of Dawn of the Dead) is the third member of the team, a funky plainclothes cop sent to keep an eye on Crawford, who is their top suspect in Pretorius’ decapitation.

Image The Legend of Hell House on acid, with fetish gear and an S&M lair hidden away in the upstairs bedrooms. The special effects are strictly low budget, more creative than convincing, and the professionalism of the so-called doctors and scientists is pure B-movie melodrama, but that comes with the territory. Gordon shot this in Italy and he embraced the visual culture of his local film crew. The New England manor home looks out of time and out of place and the spirit world is painted in the saturated colors of an Italian giallo, as if the other dimension is art directed by Dario Argento. Lovecraftian creatures swim through the air like supernatural wolf eels and the infected Crawford feeds on human brains like a starving ghoul.

But it all comes down to the defining difference between the classic ghost story and Lovecraft’s supernatural worlds. In the former, knowledge is healing. In Lovecraft’s world, it merely makes you mad.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack Collector’s Edition presents the unrated director’s cut, which looks awfully good in this newly remastered edition, and a terrific collection of supplements. Carried over from the 2007 DVD is a lively commentary track with director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna teaming up with stars Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs, and screenwriter Dennis Paoli goes solo from a commentary track new to this release. There are new video interviews with stars Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs and executive producer Charles Band, the new featurette “Multiple Dimensions” on the make-up and creature effects, archival interviews with Stuart and composer Richard Band, and the 2007 featurette “The Editing Room: Lost and Found” on restoring the director’s cut.

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