Employee Picks: A Rock Musical, Waterlogged Zombies, And A Revenge Thriller

(Welcome to Employee Picks, a series where Jacob Knight uses his day job expertise as a video store manager to recommend unique and often overlooked alternative options to the big movies hitting theaters and home video.)

Now that we're out of the Halloween season, it seems like it's finally time to stick to the script. So, without further ado, here's a legitimate, 100% to format, no-BS edition of Employee Picks.

The Major Release: Bohemian Rhapsody

Your Alternative: Velvet Goldmine (1998, d. Todd Haynes)

Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad movie: a mix of biopic clichés, already parodied to death in genius works like Walk Hard, anchored by a central turn that's more imitation than actual performance. Instead, watch a good movie about glam rockers from one of the finest directors to ever lay eyes on a movie camera. Velvet Goldmine is Todd Haynes' ode to deafening stage opulence, following journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) as he chronicles the rise and fall of Bowie-esque pop madman Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The "original punk", Slade became a symbol of individuality and bi-sexual bliss for a generation of lost teens. Catchy, tragic and deeply human, Velvet Goldmine is one of the finest rock musicals ever made.

Velvet Goldmine is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Miramax/Lionsgate

The Major Release: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Your Alternative: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013, d. Tommy Wirkola)

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a rather garish attempt to continue cross-breeding epic fantasy with easily-recognizable classic works of art/folklore/fairy tales. In short, it's a corporate sham masquerading as cinema, and isn't much fun to sit though. Though it was mostly dismissed (and, in some circles, outright reviled) upon release, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters takes that same "live-action fairy tale" construct and plays like Sam Raimi was somehow allowed to direct a bizarro spin-off of Supernatural. Here's a movie with a great tough guy (the always poorly-timed Jeremy Renner) who fights evil with his little sister, that takes pleasure in coating certain monster-centric scenes in copious splatter. The doofiness of the overall tone knows no bounds, as Hansel's a bumbling Jack Burton type who has diabetes from eating his childhood candy house, and Gretel has a fucking machine gun crossbow. But there's so much wild, kinetic filmmaking energy on display that it's tough not to get caught up in all the wild, poorly CGI'd shenanigans on display. More B-Movies should be this recklessly weird and fun.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is available to stream on Amazon.

The Major Release: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

Your Alternative: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984, d. Charles E. Sellier Jr.)

Sure, the Grinch is forever a "mean one," but has that fuzzy, green Ebenezer Scrooge ever impaled a naked Linnea Quigley to the wall with a set of deer antlers? Survey says: fuck no. Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the nastiest slashers in the history of a subgenre known for its cruelty, as young Billy Chapman sees his parents executed by a scumbag in a Santa Claus outfit, and is then subsequently beaten by the nuns in his orphanage. Of course, once he grows up, Billy seems like a well-adjusted, strapping adult...until the owner of the toy store he gets a job at decides to make him don the red St. Nick costume come Christmas. Trigger Warning: mucho bloodshed occurs, as Billy picks up an axe and starts chopping his way through the residents in his small Midwestern town. A Yuletide staple in the Knight household, Charles E. Sellier's cult classic is mostly for the degenerates in your home who giggle at the part in Gremlins where Phoebe Cates talks about the time her dad broke his neck coming down the chimney.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Scream! Factory.

The Major Release: The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story

Your Alternative: Rape Squad [aka Act of Vengeance] (1974, d. Bob Kelljan)

One of the great wacko pieces of exploitation cinema, Rape Squad follows a group of women who've all been sexually assaulted by the same hulk in a hockey mask. In response, they form the titular vigilante unit and pursue him, along with several other perverts that've harassed these diabolical dames. Rape Squad creates an entire universe where all men are either creeps or sex maniacs, looking to victimize every member of the opposite sex who surrounds them. At the same time, this is still a hardcore work of grindhouse filmmaking, titillating you while being totally gross (example: the squad is brainstormed while all the girls are in a bubble bath). So, instead of watching the weird Batman iteration of Lisbeth Salander, tune in to a genuine work of off-kilter catharsis, which offers up one hell of a finale to its ultra-violent shenanigans.

Rape Squad is available to stream on Amazon.

The Major Release: Overlord

Your Alternative: Shock Waves (1977, d. Ken Wiederhorn)

Nazi zombies are cool as hell. That's just scientific fact. This writer's personal favorite entry into the too-small horror subgenre has got to be Shock Waves – a languid, strange, Florida-shot slice of exploitation that may be the closest any American undead zombie has come to approximating the hazy dread of classic Eurohorror. Following a crew of low rent pleasure seekers who become stranded on a desert isle where a former SS scientist (a gaunt, sickly Peter Cushing) and his waterlogged, goggled army of the dead reside, Shock Waves moves at a snail's pace at first, only to evolve into a full-blown creature feature onslaught by the end. Featuring great makeup SFX work from unheralded genre weirdo Alan Ormsby, Shock Waves is going to appeal to specific strain of horror connoisseur, but those who connect with its weirdo wavelength are going to find a lot to love.

Shock Waves is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Blue Underground.

The Major Release: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Your Alternative: The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982, d. Albert Pyun)

Schlocky, ambitious madman Albert Pyun's The Sword and the Sorcerer chronicles a classical hero's journey, complete with big breasted princesses, various medieval double crosses, heart-ripping warlocks, pneumatic swords, straight up crucifixion, and some pretty wonky fight choreography. Nightmare-faced Richard Lynch is totally unhinged as the villainous warlord Titus Cromwell, who wants to destroy everything our stubbly hero (Lee Horsley) holds dear. If you saw this when you were young, just know that it doesn't hold up as well as you'd expect, but all the scummy, weird, latex-riddled '80s sword and sorcery madness is way better than sitting through fucking Johnny Depp using magic to hunt down Eddie Redmayne in another forgettable faux-Potter installment.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is available on OOP DVD, courtesy of Anchor Bay.

The Major Release: Instant Family

Your Alternative: Step Brothers (2008, d. Adam McKay)

Look, you can go watch Mark Wahlberg join families with Rose Byrne, or you can instead sit down with one of the greatest comedies of the last decade in Step Brothers. Adam McKay's feature length ode to man-children is easily one of the movies this writer has watched the most throughout his life, as Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly scream insults at one another after being forced to become bros, thanks to their widowed parents getting married. There's also Adam Scott screaming about his abs, Richard Jenkins monologuing about not "losing your dinosaur," and Mary Steenburgen basically being a total angel sent down from Heaven to try and endure it all. In this world, there are two types of people: those who recognize the genius of Step Brothers, and others you just shouldn't trust for a second.

Step Brothers is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Wide Release: Widows

Your Alternative: Switchblade Sisters (1975, d. Jack Hill)

A true exploitation classic from one of the scummy genre's finest directors, Jack Hill combines the somewhat complicated girl gang plot effortlessly with a crisp gangster movie tone that wouldn't feel out of place in a James Cagney movie. Yet Switchblade Sisters is gifted with the no-nonsense intensity of pure '70s drive-in cinema, combining social commentary with hot teenage girls flashing their shiniest blades. The three main leads are perfect: cherubic Robbie Lee, rolling hard as the tough leader of the Dagger Debs; Joanne Nail, who looks like a beauty queen but is the toughest Deb of all; and Monica Gayle as the sexy one-eyed Iago Patch, who dines on the coldest plate of revenge imaginable at the end. Where Steve McQueen combines Michael Mann steel and glass with Chicago sociopolitical violence in his Gillian Flynn heist, Hill beat him to the punch forty-plus years prior, on a lower budget and the same level of melodramatic class. This one's an all-timer.

Switchblade Sisters is available to stream on Amazon.

Wide Release: Creed 2

Your Alternative: Fat City (d. 1972, d. John Huston)

We're all going to see Creed 2, as everybody loves Rocky and Adonis and wants to see what the next chapter in their relationship has in store for the champs. However, when you're done with this Turkey Day fight fiesta, maybe check out one of the more unheralded classics of the early '70s. Fat City is John Huston's very best late period picture: a stark portrait of two working class brawlers, one an aging pro (Stacy Keach), and the other his up-and-coming sparring partner (Jeff Bridges). Neither have many options in this world, subjecting themselves to nightly beatings just to make a buck. Brusque masculinity collides with broken dreams, as Susan Tyrell acts her ass off to the tune of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Fat City is an incredibly stark, depressing melodrama, often playing like a Bruce Springsteen song come to life. I absolutely love it.

Fat City is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Twilight Time.

Wide Release: Ralph Breaks the Internet

Your Alternative: The Lawnmower Man (1992, d. Brett Leonard)

Brett Leonard's '92 tech-sploitation freak out is too bizarre and fascinating to deny, operating more like William Gibson fan fiction under a Stephen King moniker. It's Power Gloves For Algernon, as Jeff Fahey's simple groundskeeper Jobe is transformed into a literal Cyber God thanks to an overzealous scientist (a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan)'s research into the realms of virtual reality. This is the type of movie where a brainwashed monkey wearing a mini-RoboCop outfit gets into a Mexican stand-off with a legion of law enforcement officials within the first twenty minutes, all while Fahey screams "Cyboman!" as the simian's cut down in a hail of gunfire. Yeah, it's that fucking weird. By the time Jobe is both fucking and duking it out inside cyberspace, Leonard's Sirkian take on '90s suburban melodrama gives way to a hallucinatory cinematic experience that predates The Matrix – technology breathing new life into one man's damaged brain and allowing him to create his own reality. Often dismissed by many as being simply another bullshit entry into the early half of the decade's obsession with computer-based terror (Ghost in the Machineanyone?), The Lawnmower Man is a legitimately bizarre and heady curio, especially in its 140-minute Director's Cut form.

The Lawnmower Man is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Scream! Factory.

Wide Release: Robin Hood

Your Alternative: Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964, d. Gordon Douglas)

Absolutely one of the very best "Rat Pack" pictures, Gordon Douglas' Depression gangster musical has some classic numbers (such as Sinatra doing "My Kind of Town") and is actually fairly compelling as a crime picture. It's all very silly and composed of tableaus fit to be captured as still life compositions, framed, and hung above the bar in some North Jersey hole in the wall (where you can never seem to figure out how they make any money because it's always empty). Still, this spoofy bit of fluff is peppered with colorful performances from solid character actors (such as Edward G. Robinson and Peter Falk), and marks the last time Ol' Blue Eyes would be singing and dancing onscreen, as he'd soon be going full action star with the back-to-back WWII pictures None But the Brave and Von Ryan's Express.

Robin and the Seven Hoods is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Warner Bros.

Wide Release: The Possession of Hannah Grace

Your Alternative: Beyond the Door (1974, d. Ovidio G. Assonitis & Robert Barrett)

If we're going to sit through another Exorcist knock-off, then we may as well go back to one of the very first (and still most popular): Ovidio Assonitis' Beyond the Door. An utter affront to both taste and coherence, absurd dialogue and clipped editing rhythms amplify janky character interactions, most of which are superfluous to the plot yet feel vital to understanding this trashy Italian knock-off. There are vomiting gags and numerous obscenities, but the big hook this time is that the mother is possessed, not the child (not that you're going to care about any of these characters for one second). An act of cinematic sacrilege, Beyond the Door is essential to understanding rip-off culture at the movies, as it's still one of the most inherently watchable pieces of trash ever made.

Beyond the Door is available to stream on Amazon.