Film Reviews

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection – Blu-ray Review

The midwestern US state of Wisconsin has several claims to fame, one of which is its nickname as ‘America’s Dairyland’, stemming from its long tradition as being one of the largest providers of dairy produce in the country. It therefore seems fitting, then, that one of its residents has contributed more than his fair share of cheese: Bill Rebane.

Who is Bill Rebane? Well, that very question is posed by the title of a feature length documentary included on this new limited edition Blu-ray set from Arrow Video. In brief, he is the son of a Latvian and Estonian couple who emigrated to the United States when he was 15; Rebane became involved in filmmaking on a small scale basis, and he progressed to making a number of independent features, one of which – Monster A Go-Go! – has been declared as being one of the worst movies ever.

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Rebane could certainly be considered one of the archetypal guerrilla filmmakers, and his name is often bandied around with the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the ‘Godfather of Gore’. It may help if you think of Rebane as being akin to Ed Wood, in that they were both men devoted to making films which fell outside the studio system, on budgets which were as minuscule as their resources, and which also sadly fell far short of their aspirations.

Based out of a self-built studio in Wisconsin known as ‘The Shooting Ranch’, Rebane worked on making his movies for nearly three decades until ill health brought his career to an end. To say that his catalogue is eclectic would be somewhat of an understatement, and may even border on flattery; the entire Rebane oeuvre does seem to prove the auteur theory, insofar as anyone who watches one of Rebane’s productions would undoubtedly agree they do have a unique, distinctive look and feel quite unlike anybody else‘s.

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection brings half a dozen of Rebane’s pictures together here – Monster A Go-Go!; Invasion From Inner Earth; The Alpha Incident; The Demons Of Ludlow; The Game (AKA The Cold); and what was to be Bill Rebane’s final release, Twister’s Revenge. It seems a shame some of his other films were not included either as well or instead, as The Giant Spider Invasion and Rana: The Legend Of Shadow Lake (distributed by Troma as Croaked: Frog Monster From Hell) seem like they would be an absolute hoot.

Sadly, at least half of the titles which are actually presented here are rather stolid, lumpen and joyless affairs, with very little to speak of in the way of any real merit. Rebane’s style of direction and staging could perhaps rather generously be described as somnambulant, with every effort made to build a real sense of dramatic inertia. A common trait does appear to be bringing small groups of people together in very close, confined quarters to do very little, and then giving them far too much time to do it in.

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It does feel a minor miracle in some cases that what Rebane shot even stuck to the celluloid in the first place, instead of being chemically repelled like a rejected transplant organ. It would be fair to say most of the output included here fails to even fall into the ‘so bad, it’s good’ category, and is honestly just plain risible. Many of the films featured on this set lack any real charm, and are difficult incredibly to get through in a single sitting, as your attention span tends to slide off the screen with alarming regularity.

To give you an example of the sort of material which we are dealing with, The Demons Of Ludlow is centred around a haunted piano, and it was written simply because Rebane had bought a piano but was unsure as to how he wanted to incorporate it into one of his films. Twister’s Revenge is a supposed comedy (although there are most probably much funnier war crimes), based around a monster truck with AI, and is executed like some awful hybrid of Knight Rider and Smokey And The Bandit, only far less intellectual.

The editing of the films feels like it was done blindfolded, as most of the movies jump from one shot to the next, with scant regard for visual continuity within a scene. There is also very little regard given to framing things properly, as there are an interminable amount of wide shots which go on for uncomfortably long periods of time. While it is possible to admire Rebane’s sheer industriousness and chutzpah in getting his films made in the first place against all the odds, unfortunately industriousness and chutzpah alone do not a quality product make.

With Rebane’s work chiefly being known only to cineastes, the films alone would be insufficient to commend a casual buyer to pick up this limited edition set (unless they happen to be a masochist with too much spare time on their hands, and disposable income to burn). However, what really does elevate Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection is the ridiculously impressive raft of special features which go an awful long way towards justifying the asking price; a whole lot of mainstream releases will be looking on in envy at this bonus content.

Front and centre is historian and critic David Cairns‘ feature length documentary, mentioned earlier, which helps give a great amount of much-needed context to Rebane’s body of work, including taking a look at his background. One of Bill Rebane’s biggest advocates is historian and critic Stephen R. Bissette, who not only features in the documentary, but also has a feature of his own running to a similar length, in which he speaks with clarity and utter conviction about Rebane’s importance, and these contributions really add extra value to the set, putting Rebane’s output in a new light.

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Kim Newman also talks about Rebane’s catalogue of films, and we even get contributions from the man himself – Bill Rebane – in a series of interviews spread across the set. In addition to this, there are outtakes, trailers, and copies of Rebane’s shorter pieces, including an industrial film about kidnapping and extortion. Although the very best possible film prints were used for this set, it still looks as though any restoration work was done with a fork, with so many marks and scratches to be seen on the picture; maybe some turds are resolutely unpolishable.

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection happens to be one of those rare occasions where the value added material proves to be of more relative worth and merit than the main features themselves, and helps drag up the overall score by some considerable way. Rebane fans and lovers of schlocky horror picture shows will lap this set up; for everybody else, however, including the lactose intolerant, caveat very much emptor.

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 24th May from Arrow Video.

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