Retribution (1987) Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: October 26, 2021 (following original June 25 site exclusive release)
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo (both cuts)
Run Time: 108:56 (Theatrical Cut)/109:05 (Dutch Video Cut)
Director: Guy Magar
On the seedy side of Hollywood, an emotionally fragile painter miraculously survives a horrific suicide attempt. But, when a series of grisly murders rocks the city, he discovers he may be possessed by the vengeful spirit of a murdered local hoodlum. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
It can be difficult to discover under-the-radar dark horses in the post-streaming era, but, every once in a while, a studio like Severin will come along and dig up something like Guy Magar’s Retribution (aka: Retribution: The Ultimate Nightmare, 1987). In my not unsubstantial library of books on the subject of horror films, it is mentioned only as an unworthy rip-off of Waris Hussein’s 1972 thriller The Possession of Joel Delaney (which it kind of is). Retribution doesn’t fit the lost classic mold, because it was never really lost and was easily found on video store shelves during the VHS era. It just didn’t get much traction from the mainstream horror or cult fan communities. Part of the problem is that it isn’t a unique picture on paper or, in this case, the blurb on the back of the video box. Magar and co-writer Lee Wasserman combine common elements of possession movies, telekinetic horror, and criminal retribution stories – sort of a Possession of Joel Delaney meets Carrie (1976) with a dash of White Heat (1949) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Its closest cousin might be Arthur Marks’ blaxploitation gangster horror hybrid, J.D.’s Revenge (1976). Also, as the few reviews you can find from the period will likely tell you, Retribution really struggles with its tonal balances. This type of veering back and forth between cartoonishness and pathos can work, but, unfortunately, Retribution devotes a little too much time to its melodramatic stretches for the diverging tones and keyed-up performances to feel as wacky as one might like.
It’s too bad that the implied lack of surprises and occasionally awkward sincerity led so many to, by and large, ignore Retribution all these years, because these concerns are all but completely overridden by the fact that Magar shoots this prime-time-soap-meets-B-horror with the gusto of a well-funded music video. Set-pieces luxuriate in lurid neon, the camera takes unhinged, Raimi-esque trips around set, backgrounds are production designed to hell & back, lights strobe, and smoke bellows. Even the blandest, dialogue-driven sequence tends to be lit like a Patrick Nagel illustration or early Michael Mann film, and almost nine minutes tick by before any lines of dialogue are spoken. It’s also reasonably gory (more on that below) and reminds me at times of Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982), specifically the ways the characters are so unexpectedly sweet, despite the comic grimness of their urban environment. George the psychic killer (Dennis Lipscomb) and Angel the prostitute neighbor’s (Suzanne Snyder) reefer-enhanced first date in an art gallery is genuinely more adorable than you’d see from half the rom-coms released the same year. At least until the Easter Island head starts crying fountains of blood.
Unfortunately, Magar doesn’t appear to have delivered on the promise of Retribution. He made it between gigs directing for television in the ‘80s and followed it up with made-for-TV movies Dark Avenger (1990) and Stepfather 3 (1992), as well as the STV sequel Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001), which is, as of this writing, his final film as director. It appears that his only ever theatrically released film was mob drama Lookin' Italian in 1994.
As stated above, Retribution has been making the home video rounds for a while now, from the readily available Virgin Vision VHS tape (I remember seeing the box at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and never bothering to rent it) to Code Red’s 25th anniversary DVD and Screen Archives exclusive Blu-ray. Severin’s three-disc set (first released as a limited edition in June of 2021) includes the R-rating theatrical cut alongside an extended Dutch home video cut, which reinstates previously censored sequences that were available as deleted scenes on the Code Red disc. Both cuts are culled from a 2K scan of pre-print elements and presented in 1.85:1, 1080p video. Outside of a 4K rescan and UHD release – and accepting that the trimmed gore seems to be standard definition taken from the tape source – I can’t imagine this film looking much better than it does here. Cinematographer Gary Thieltges’ photography carefully juggles gritty, street-set imagery with bombastically ‘80s colors and lighting. Thematically, this sort of separates the supernatural elements from the real-world bits, but the mix largely runs through the entire film. The people behind this transfer refrain from punching up the MTV-like qualities with DNR and instead opted to reproduce the inherent graininess of the footage. This can mute the colors during the darkest shots, but is worth it for maintaining the intended tone. Edges are tight without being oversharpened, which would have dulled the ghostly fogginess of some of the lighting effects, and details pop, especially during close-ups.
Both cuts are presented in their original English stereo and uncompressed, 2.0 DTS-Master Audio sound. The mix is strong and loud without notable distortion effects and issues with the levels (dialogue sometimes overpowers effects and music at weird times) are most likely inherent in the original material. The electronic score was composed by frequent John Carpenter musical collaborator and famed sound designer Alan Howarth. It’s a massive highlight on the track and for the film in general (aside from some of the softer moments, which sound kind of like L.A. Law), so much so that Severin opted to include a CD soundtrack with this release.
Disc One (Theatrical Cut)
Writing Wrongs (12:18, HD) – Co-writer/producer Lee Wasserman chats about his schooling, meeting Magar, putting a spin on The Exorcist (1974) formula, combining genres, shooting special effects on a budget, and struggles with the MPAA.
Shock Therapy (8:06, HD) – Actress Leslie Wing recalls her performance art training, touring on stage before moving onto films, being cast in Retribution, working with Magar & the cast, and prepping for her role as a psychologist.
Angel's Heart (6:47, HD) – Actress Suzanne Synder discusses overcoming shyness to become an actress, Magar’s direction, her character, and her castmates.
Santa Maria, Mother Of God, Help Me! (9:09, HD) – Actor Mike Muscat, who appears briefly as the vengeful spirit that possesses George, talks turning from class clown into acting, joining the military in order to work in community theater (what?), meeting Magar at an actor’s workshop, and shooting his death scene.
Settling the Score (8:15, HD) – Composer Alan Howarth chats about his work with John Carpenter, the technical set-up he used to record the Retribution soundtrack, and breaks down some of the film’s cues.
Visions of Vengeance (7:18, HD) – Effects artist John Eggett runs through a chunk of his early career and talks us through some of Retribution’s gags.
The Art of Getting Even (6:35, HD) – Artist Barry Fahr discusses working as a fine artist and scenic/set artist (including Star Wars, which he didn’t know he’d worked on until after he saw it), as well as the neo-Expressionist pieces he made for Retribution.
Living in Oblivion (9:38, HD) – Production designer Robb Wilson King wraps up the interviews with a look at his part time jobs working for Roger Corman, graduating to lead production designer (including work on several Wes Craven movies), locations, and “throwing the kitchen sink” at Retribution, despite the budget being a little low for his liking.
Bingo (1:59, HD) – Magar’s 1973 student film with optional director’s commentary.
Still & poster gallery
Trailer and promo reel
Disc Two (Dutch Video Release Version)
Commentary with director Guy Magar – This extended cut director’s commentary is moderated by Severin’s David Gregory and covers Magar’s career/training, the film’s inspirations (I didn’t hear The Possession of Joel Delaney come up, but wasn’t listening that closely), raising money for the independent production, MPAA censorship, the cast & crew, and editing/photography/effects techniques.
Disc Three (CD)
Soundtrack by Alan Howarth (14 tracks; 54:04)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.