There are some films that I feel that I’m just never meant to see properly; The Devils, Greed, The Day the Clown Cried. Until very recently, at the top of that list – for me, anyway – would be Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack!. I became first aware of McDowell’s film when I found myself a bit too interested in the work of the Kuchar brothers as an undergrad. That interest led me down a dark, twisty, flamboyant path that would lead only to a lot of empty promises, closed doors and bad (bad, bad) tape dubs. Much of that searching was for something resembling a full, not beat to shit, copy of Thundercrack!. Now it’s 2015 and, not only is it available in its entirety, but it has been lovingly and painstakingly restored by Synapse in a project ongoing since 2003. Really, it’s a revelation.
So, what is Thundercrack! and why did I want to see it so badly? In the most reductive description, it’s a super low budget American made independent horror flick featuring hardcore sex from 1975, shot in saturated black and white and in a 1.33 aspect ratio. It runs – in this, its full iteration – a whopping 160 minutes and runs the gamut from strange physical comedy, to over-the-top melodrama, to legitimately erotic/perverse sex and even some surprisingly potent dread. It’s really unique and absolutely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Though, if you can imagine Guy Maddin making a hardcore sex infused horror flick in the 70s, maybe with the aid of Andy Milligan, you’d be on the right track.
What makes Thundercrack! such a beast of a work – no, it isn’t the runtime – is how well it all works. Despite its wildly inconsistent tones, hamfisted performances and obvious budget shortcomings, it’s a work of utmost sincerity. It’s also unabashedly entertaining. For a film with as staggering a runtime as this has, that features all manner of hardcore sex on screen (really, nothing is left to the imagination here) and wears its avant-garde sensibilities with pride, this is impressively fun viewing. If you have a group of friends that won’t bat an eye or two at glistening erect cocks and/or phallic objects being inserted in (m)any holes, this is perfect film party material. But, beyond this, what is so important about this finally being available is that there really just isn’t anything else like it out there. It’s a product of a time, space, and a particular creative energy that seems to have existed solely to create this. Synapse have been touting this as a 40th anniversary restoration, which it is, but I’d also argue that it’s an act of preservation even more so. This is the real deal.
Synapse have been working on this release for 12 years now and that time clearly hasn’t been wasted. This new restoration is from the only existing complete 16mm print and presents McDowell’s film in its proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The result is seriously stunning. Blacks are deep and nothing is blown out. Damage is minimal, which is impressive for a film of this vintage and likely has been taken rather well care of for forty years. Grain is organic throughout, perhaps more prominent than some will be used to considering the 16mm stock used. Anyone who has ever experienced a bad tape dub of this over the years will need to unhinge their jaws when the film first hits screen. Outside of the equally astounding work that Criterion did with the Apu Trilogy, this is the best restoration work I have seen this year. On the audio end, things don’t fare quite as well but that’s to no fault of Synapse. The track is only 1.0 DTS HD MA, which is in line with how it was recorded. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the most professional production and some of that sound – especially regarding dialogue – is unintelligible, at best. Luckily, there are subtitles provided when things get really rough. Though reading some of the sordid lines these characters spew somehow made me feel even more grimier than everything else going on!
If having the film available and restored wasn’t enough, Synapse have completely overloaded this package with supplements. The biggest (and exclusive to the Blu-ray) of which is the feature length documentary It Came from Kuchar, which was released in 2009 and is making its HD debut here. As I mentioned before, my interest in the Kuchar brothers is what got me to Thundercrack! in the first place, so this is a very welcomed addition. I saw the film when it originally came out and it holds up really well. It’s a tight, entertaining look at the working life of George and Mike and goes into quite a bit about Thundercrack! as well. Hats off to Synapse for getting this on here. The only other feature on the Blu-ray is an audio interview with McDowell that plays along with the film ala a commentary track. It only runs for 85 minutes of the feature, but it covers a lot of ground with McDowell being rather candid. It’s a great listen for fans and anyone interested in what was going on behind the scenes after watching the film. Moving on, we get a second disc (a DVD) with a whole bunch of assorted content. The biggest item for me is five short films from McDowell: Confessions, Naughty Words, The Siamese Pinheads, Boggy Depot, and Loads. These are all pretty strange and perverse, which one should expect. My favorite of the bunch is Naughty Words which features George Kuchar and McDowell’s sister Melinda saying names for genitals over still images. It plays out similarly to a sequence in Thundercrack! and pairs nicely with the feature. The rest are all great in their own right and their inclusion here is beyond appreciated. I know that there’s much more where they all came from, so here’s hoping that the rest surface somehow. The disc also includes a ten minute interview with George Kuchar, a twenty three minute interview with McDowell and actress Marion Eaton, a half hour of behind the scenes material, seventeen minutes of extended sex scenes, a five minute video of Eaton sitting in a park discussing the film, eight minutes of auditions and, lastly, a theatrical trailer. This is truly a labor of love release with no stone left unturned.
Synapse have really outdone themselves here. They announced that they’d be releasing Thundercrack! on disc over ten years ago and a lot has happened in that time, especially in regards to current trends in home video. This could not have been a cheap or easy undertaking and Synapse deserve every commendation for seeing this through and putting this much care into it. This is easily a contender for the best restoration work and physical media release of 2015. And, beyond that, is as vital an act of film preservation as I’ve seen all year. Essential.