The latest blood-soaked DVDs reviewed

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Paignton film critic Tom Leins casts a critical eye over a blood-soaked selection of DVD releases

After earning well-deserved plaudits for his excellent directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck steps behind the camera once more for the equally impressive The Town (Warner Home Video). While the earlier movie starred Affleck’s younger brother Casey in the lead role, Affleck himself takes centre stage in The Town, and delivers one of his best performances in recent memory.

Doug MacRay (Affleck) almost made the big-time as an ice hockey player, but when his dream was shattered he turned his back on sports and started following in his notorious father’s criminal footsteps. After a string of violent (but lucrative) armoured car heists, the wheels threaten to come off the gang’s criminal enterprise when a female bank manager glimpses a distinctive tattoo on one of the gang member’s necks during a hold-up. When the dust settles Doug insinuates himself into the life of the witness, ostensibly as a way of ascertaining what she knows, only to fall in love with her and jeopardise the crew’s freedom even further.

Despite a pulpy premise, The Town is elevated to the next level by its top-drawer cast. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) is in terrifying form as Doug’s best friend Jem, and the cast is fleshed out by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as Doug’s love interest Claire, and Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as the FBI agent determined to put Doug behind bars. Even Pete Postlethwaite – in one of his last screen performances – enters the fray as an ex-IRA mob boss-turned-florist who forces Doug and his gang into one audacious final job. Although the sentimental finale is slightly at odds with the gritty narrative, The Town is a hugely impressive undertaking. Regardless of whether or not Affleck strays away from his Boston stomping ground for his next film, on this evidence he looks set to have a great directorial career ahead of him.

French horror movie Amer (Anchor Bay) takes Giallo as a stylistic jump-off point, before plunging the viewer into a world of queasy imagery and barely restrained psychosis. The storyline – if you can call it that – unfolds in three sections as Ana (played respectively by Cassandra Foret, Charlotte Eugene-Guibeaud and Marie Bos) progresses from childhood through to adolescence and on to womanhood. Throughout Ana’s life, fear, sexuality and the impending threat of violence are never far away from the surface, and Amer explores her precocious psyche as she threatens to lapse into mania. It may make some viewers feel uncomfortable, but this is aggressively sensual filmmaking, utterly confident in its own provocative charms.

On a visual level, Amer is probably one of the most distinctive-looking films since Pan’s Labyrinth, while its recurring visual motifs recall Dario Argento in his pomp. Playful, disturbing, feverish and genuinely weird, Amer offers a voyeuristic blend of sensuality and freakiness throughout. While its art-house approach won’t suit everyone, viewers who buy into the concept are in for a rare treat. Amer is so good, I can imagine lesser filmmakers stealing scenes out of it for generations to come. Don’t just take my word for it, Quentin Tarantino included Amer at #19 in his Top 20 films of 2010 – one of the few genuinely alternative choices in a weirdly mainstream list. (Interestingly The Town – see above – was ranked at #7.)

Long-term CSI fans feared that the franchise was in danger of coming off the rails when William Petersen (Gil Grissom) announced that he would be leaving the show mid-way through Season 9. Nevertheless, 10 seasons in, the show is still going strong. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – Season 10 (Momentum) marks the first full season starring Petersen’s replacement, Laurence Fishburne, and in the same way that Grissom’s farewell episode treated viewers to an array of scenes recalling Manhunter (the movie that kick-started Petersen’s Hollywood career), Season 10  pulls a similar stunt, opening with a dazzling stop-motion scene that recalls Fishburne’s involvement with The Matrix series. It’s arguably one of the most dazzling scenes in CSI history, and gets the season off to a cracking start.

If you abandoned CSI after getting jaded by its over-familiar cast, then rest assured that Fishburne’s Ray Langston definitely injects some fresh blood into what was already one the bloodiest shows on TV. That said, after a two-season hiatus, Jorja Fox reprises the role of Sara Sidle, ensuring that things don’t feel too radically different. Even better, the producers have inserted plenty of self-referential touches – not least the return of Grissom’s former nemesis Nate Haskell – which are sure to please long-term fans. Enjoyably, there’s also a recurring serial killer story arc in the mix, in which the CSI operatives seek to track down the elusive ‘Dr Jekyll’. Happily, after all these years, CSI still hasn’t lost its edge. Despite a change in personnel, the crimes have lost none of their macabre appeal, and Season 10 offers 23 episodes of slick, disturbing fun.

If the title sounds familiar, then that’s because I Spit On Your Grave (Anchor Bay) is a remake of the notorious 1978 exploitation movie by Meir Zarchi. Creaky old exploitation flicks have provided an unexpected source of material for contemporary horror directors, and last year saw The Last House On The Left given a similarly slick overhaul. The plot sees novelist Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) hire out a cabin in the middle of nowhere in a bid to finish her new novel. After a productive start, her backwoods break soon takes a turn for the worst, when a mob of drunken redneck locals storm her home, angry at a perceived slight against them. Jennifer manages to escape, but the county Sheriff turns out to be even worse than the local scumbags, and  the unsavoury collective proceed to put Jennifer through sexual and psychological hell, before leaving her for dead.

Rape-revenge movies sometimes prove problematic inasmuch as the revenge doesn’t always compare favourably to the initial degradation, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for some viewers. Thankfully, this isn’t the case in I Spit On Your Grave, and despite the horrors that Jennifer is subjected to, her revenge is far, far worse, with each of her tormentors given a grisly punishment befitting their own involvement in her rape. While the extreme nastiness isn’t exactly ‘fun’ to watch, the sheer inventiveness is undeniably gratifying. Aside from Jennifer’s inexplicably abrupt mid-way switch from hunted to hunter, I Spit On Your Grave is a solid, disturbing thriller that successfully flips the ‘Torture Porn’ sub-genre on its head, and reclaims the brutality for the aggrieved victims. Novice actress Sarah Butler does well in her first major film role, although her subsequent comment that she identified with the ‘strong feminist arc’ of the character leads you to question her judgement somewhat. It may be distasteful in the extreme, but I Spit On Your Grave is a viciously well-executed revenge movie.