Arrow Video: Weird Wisconsin - The Bill Rebane Collection (1965 - 1988) - Reviewed

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Not long after taking a swan dive into the muck figuratively and literally with their Floridian blu-ray boxed set He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefe Collection, Arrow Video once again has turned their attention onto another prominent figure in the underworld of regional American exploitation horror.  This time around the focus is on cult Wisconsin based regional exploitation director Bill Rebane in the aptly named Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection.  Encompassing six of the director’s films brought together on blu-ray for the first time, Weird Wisconsin truly lives up to the moniker of being a collection of 100% truly homegrown sci-fi/horror made by a filmmaker who built his own studio in the woods of Wisconsin. 
Best known for his animals attack from another dimension Wisconsin flick The Giant Spider Invasion (released on blu-ray by Dark Force), Arrow Video have curated six films spread out across three discs along with a fourth disc devoted to extras and an original feature length documentary about all of Rebane’s career produced by Arrow Films.  The resulting package joins The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast set and both American Horror Project boxed sets as another head over heels swan dive into distinctly American midwestern regional exploitation flicks that are as looney and odd as they are inspired surreal jaunts that gave drive-in moviegoers some of the more peculiar offerings of their viewership.
As with The William GrefĂ© Collection, neither the films nor the transfers of them are examples of top-notch filmmaking or storytelling.  Rather the charm stems from the microbudget do-it-yourself filmmaking with more than a few moments throughout the collection of some of the weirdest ideas and vistas you’ll ever glimpse from the world of American regional exploitation.  Instead of diving in depth with these mostly offbeat oddities, the Movie Sleuth will provide a general overview of the films in question.  While it doesn’t quite succeed as science-fiction/horror cinema, it does as a set offer up one of the strangest and most peculiar collections from one of midwestern America’s most unusual purveyors of regional exploitation still at large today.

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The first film in the set, Monster a Go-Go, a kind of Quatermass Xperiment cheapie involving an astronaut who comes back to Earth transformed into a tall lanky mutant who terrorizes sunbathers in their backyards is somewhat damaged goods.  The only black-and-white film in the series, shot and released in 1965, director Rebane first encountered trouble when financing fell through and a chunk of the footage was lost.  None other than Arrow’s other regional exploitation darling Herschell Gordon Lewis wound up taking over directing duties and shot a number of new sequences with other actors, resulting in a truly confounding viewing experience that eventually became a favorite on Mystery Science Theater 3000. 
Jumping ahead nine years in the set with the alien invasion flick Invasion from Inner Earth, whose opening credits theme song is actually just a Casio keyboard rendition of Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the first color feature in the set represents a far more understated and coherent product.  Involving an alien virus which comes from within the Earth itself, as seen from the perspective of a few inside a remote log cabin in the winter, the film benefits from the idea of less being more with much of the action staged offscreen through sound and the radio.  Of the films it’s the most straightforward save for a truly wild finale.

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Four years later Rebane would revisit the alien viral attack film once again with The Alpha Incident only this time around he amps up the gore, tension and insanity of the premise.  Akin to Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, the film concerns an alien viral outbreak let loose from a satellite collecting samples from Mars.  Boiling down to a group of people who are quarantined inside a police station, the plot thickens when it turns out no one can fall asleep or else the virus will make their heads explode.  Soon it becomes a kind of A Nightmare on Elm Street battle as the characters try ingesting caffeine to keep themselves from sleeping.  Think of it as a reworking of Invasion from Inner Earth with blood and gore this time around.
Circa 1983, Rebane made his first foray into gothic horror with the haunted piano thriller The Demons of Ludlow.  Involving a small Wisconsin town which is bestowed a grand piano from England from the original owner’s estate, the piano is initially received graciously.  But soon after more and more bizarre incidents in the town start cropping up seemingly connected to the piano which goes as far as dripping blood at times, a local preacher soon takes matters into his own hands as he tries to get to the bottom of the strange and increasingly deadly phenomena affecting the town.  The resulting film resembles an unfinished business ghost story but as such is also one of the more eccentric genre offerings from the director.

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A year later Rebane more or less offered up his own remake of The Most Dangerous Game involving guests of a household who are hunted down by the homeowner for sport with the aptly named The Game.  Concerning three millionaires who amuse themselves by grouping together youngsters with a challenge to survive the night while facing their worst fears, the film winds up pulling the rug out not just from under the characters but under the audience as well.  Soon neither the characters nor we are sure of what’s real or illusion anymore as the kids find themselves tormented by everything from tarantulas to shark fins and locking people up in a sauna. 

The last film in the set, Twister’s Revenge, is easily the wackiest film in this set if not Bill Rebane’s whole career.  Telling the nutball tale of a talking superintelligent monster truck hellbent on revenge after a group of rednecks kidnap its inventor, this “comedy” version of Christine replete with a random bar scene involving a man in a human bat mask is easily the crown jewel of the set for being wantonly and gratuitously weird on all fronts.  If these films ever get released separately on their own, this is the one I would tell people to buy.  The most entertaining and consistently surprising flick in the set, Twister’s Revenge finds itself bumping shoulders with the likes of Tammy and the T-Rex for defying rational explanation.  You can’t quite put your finger on this one and the more nonsensical it gets, the better.

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A fitting end to a truly wild and unpredictable journey through inarguably the strangest purveyor of regional Midwestern exploitation, Weird Wisconsin comes with a full feature length career spanning documentary on Bill Rebane produced by Arrow Video.  Diving in deep into the director’s filmography, including the ones not in this boxed set, the documentary is a nice finish to the saga of Bill Rebane and even manages to make sense of the whole conundrum that is Rebane’s oeuvre. 
While not of these films necessarily aim high, as a cavalcade of homegrown drive-in outlaw cinema where all bets were off and anything was fair game, Weird Wisconsin is a nice treat for both newcomers and longtime fans alike and another hit blu-ray collection from Arrow Video who continue to put a spotlight on distinctly American exploitation horror flicks from our underexplored cinematic past.

--Andrew Kotwicki