The Film: 4/5
Mike (Asher Tzarfati), a Vietnam veteran from New York, came back from the war to embrace the lifestyle of a free-spirited hippie wandering the world. Arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel, Mike hitches a ride with beautiful stage actress Elizabeth (Lily Avidan) and the two hit it off right away. They eventually end up back at her place, where Mike explains in a passionate monologue (parts of which are directed at the camera) how the war forever changed him into a man of peace. After making love on Lily's living room floor Mike convinces her to come with him in his journey to set up a hippie commune far from civilization where they can live amongst people who share their ideals of spirituality and free love. After rounding up a large group of like-minded individuals most of their potential members are machine-gunned into oblivion by a pair of mimes in dark suits who seem to appear wherever Mike goes. With their fellow massacre survivors Francois (Tzila Karney) and her boyfriend Komo (Shmuel Wolf) - who speaks mostly Hebrew - in tow, Mike and Elizabeth journey for days into the desert outside of the city until they reach an unoccupied island of sand and stone where they establish their clothing-optional commune of four. The quarter initially enjoys the good life of outdoor rutting, eating by campfire, and listening to Mike's zonked-out ruminations on modern society, but their paradise quickly goes to hell one morning when they discover that the boat that is their only access to the mainland and the food and other supplies they need to survive has vanished. Worst of all, swimming off the island is impossible as there are two hungry sharks circling the perimeter, eagerly awaiting a fine meal of stupid hippies. And let's not forget about those damn killer mimes.....
It takes a special, well-meaning brand of passion and imagination to make a movie as deliriously ingenious and delightfully mad as Amos Sefer's long-lost exploitation classic An American Hippie in Israel. My friend the author (The Book of Lists: Horror) and actor (Misty Beethoven: The Musical!) Scott Bradley is quoted on the back of the Blu-ray packaging saying this film is "Ed Wood does Zabriskie Point", and brother that is a far, far better summation that I could come up with of the twisted slice of schlock heaven Sefer dreamed up and made a reality. Originally released in the days long before audiences would start to appreciate what he had accomplished, American Hippie proved to be Sefer's only film, and he ensured that the final product - which he also scripted and edited - was his creation from first frame to last.
Grindhouse Releasing, the company responsible for bringing many a classic B-movie including Cannibal Holocaust and The Beyond back to theaters and onto various home video formats, had been awfully quiet on the new release front in recent years due to the demanding film editing assignments of co-founder Bob Murawski (Oz the Great and Powerful) and the unexpected death of his partner Sage Stallone in July 2012 from atherosclerosis. The Los Angeles-based distribution company hasn't put out any of their treasured catalog of exploitation classics since they gave Lucio Fulci's Cat in the Brain a deluxe two-disc DVD edition in March 2009. Since Grindhouse was still very much in existence it was only a matter of time before they properly entered the Blu-ray arena. American Hippie is their first release in the high-definition format, and it possibly one of the craziest flicks Murawski and the late Stallone have unleashed upon an unsuspecting and eventually grateful universe of deranged film geeks.
I’ve known of American Hippie’s existence for years but never thought I would see the day when it would get an genuine home video release. It took me a long time just to accept the fact that it was a real movie and not an elaborate prank. Watching it for the first time on this Blu-ray, I was forced to sit helplessly as Sefer’s haplessly dated labor of love took hold of my mind and my “katra” (It’s Vulcan, look it up). The opening images of a steamroller plowing through an exquisite field of flowers as gunfire effects filled the air contain more pretentious metaphors than you could locate in an amateurish student art film, and that’s just part of the fun of being under American Hippie’s spell. Nachum Heiman’s music score is a harmonious bounty of mellow folk guitar strumming and mournful Spanish horns that would be right at home in a spaghetti western, and the cinematography by Ya’ackov Kallach bathes every scene in warm, angelic gold hues that make even the most desolate settings look like an uncharted alien world with infinite possibilities. The second act is consumed by continuous shots of the central quarter of peaceniks driving through the desert and showering each other with acts of love and repetitive refrains of phrases like “Freedom” and “Beautiful” and of course “Wonderful feeling” that must have saved Sefer a lot of time in writing dialogue. Mike is given some corny monologues about Vietnam (“You fools stop pushing buttons....you fools....fools....fools!”) and peace that star Tzarfati delivers with unabashed sincerity and a complete absence of irony. No other dialogue scenes can hold a candle to the guffaw-inducing solemnity of those speeches, but late in the third act Tzarfati and co-star Wolf (who resembles Dario Argento) engage in a comedic exchange of misunderstandings and language barriers that could be mistaken for an old Abbott & Costello or Marx Brothers routine.
Mike’s fanciful, blue-tinted dreams of battling against men with reel-to-reel tape machines for heads in unintentionally comical slow-motion against the barren Israeli desert vistas have the surrealist ingenuity of Alejandro Jodorowky’s 1968 feature directorial debut Fando y Lis. The third act descent into violence and savagery when the men and women turn on each other and hurriedly regress to their most barbaric nature is a priceless left field turn of events that plays out like an adaptation of Lord of the Flies performed by the Canadian comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall. The performances by the four principal actors are startlingly robust and game for whatever the script requires them to, from intoning Sefer’s demented dialogue in various emotional states to skinny dipping in the Red Sea, but this is without a doubt Tzarfati’s show. With a beatific smile and optimistic attitude towards life you really believe that his intentions for Elizabeth and the others are indisputable, regardless of how they turn out in the final scenes.
An American Hippie in Israel has only been in my life for three days, but I can no longer imagine my Blu-ray collection without it.
Grindhouse's first Blu-ray release outdoes everything they've accomplished up until now, beginning with their first-rate restoration of the 93-minute U.S. theatrical release cut of American Hippie. The film has been remastered in 1080p high-definition and encoded in MPEG-4 and the 1.78: 1 widescreen transfer is glorious. With most of the picture grain removed and no traces of print damage remaining, the warm colors and coarse textures look very bright and rich with remarkable visual detail. Even when the movie switches gears and becomes darker as the story progresses the immense desert locales and the cool waters the ocean surrounding the commune's island home remain lush and inviting. Grindhouse has provided this release with two distinct audio options for our viewing pleasure: the first is an excellent English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono soundtrack with strong volume levels for every element of the sound mix and no audible drop-outs or overlap; the second is "The Beverly Cinema Experience", a live audio recording of the audience at a screening of American Hippie on June 15, 2010, which is presented in 5.1 and allows the music and dialogue from the movie to remain at the forefront of the channel without drowning out the laughter and hooting coming from the entertained masses. Hebrew subtitles are also included.
Grindhouse is well-known for packing their home video releases with value-added supplements to the point of leaving stretch marks on the discs. The extras line-up for An American Hippie in Israel has been in the works back when Blu-ray was in its infancy. In fact, I remember seeing the movie trailer on every Grindhouse DVD release since I Drink Your Blood. It was either that or Pieces. Fortunately this three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack offers plenty of bonus features that delve deep into the film's production history and surprising resurgence as a midnight movie staple around the world. Clearly Murawski and Stallone wanted to see this release done absolutely right; its very existence is a wonderful testament to their dedication and pure love of the wild crown jewels of cult cinema.
Five deleted scenes from Sefer's original cut start things. Running ten minutes total, the cut footage is in very rough shape and nothing mind-blowing was left out of the American release version. Their inclusion is welcome though, as are nine minutes' worth of silent 16mm screen tests in black & white.
Lead actors Tzarfati and Wolf were interviewed in Tel Aviv in 2009 for what is labeled a Q&A (56 minutes) on the special features menu, but that would imply this took place at a screening with both men in attendance. Actually this is the closest we get to having a retrospective documentary, and the actors were interviewed separately to share their memories from working on the film and opinions on its revival as a beloved cult oddity. Tzarfati is also interviewed on another featurette (18 minutes) devoted to a broad overview of his acting career, and Grindhouse has also provided a filmography for the actor (he acted alongside the likes of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme) where you will find a bonus Easter Egg clip from the 1970 Menahem Golan-directed action drama Eagles Attack at Dawn.
Director Sefer is represented in the bonus features through the inclusion of a text biography and his early 16mm short "Be Careful Children" (7 minutes), which is presented here in black & white and without a soundtrack. "A Cult is Born" (5 minutes) speaks to a group of Israeli fans about their newfound appreciation of American Hippie, while the movie's freshly-minted status as a cult classic is explored in depth in a segment from an Israeli news program (10 minutes).
Next up are a briefer pair of retrospective interviews with assistant production manager Moshe Berman (4 minutes) and Israeli folk musician Susan Devore (7 minutes), the latter having performed a song in the film with her partner Fran Avni. Berman was the son-in-law of Yitzchak Shechna, who used his share of the proceeds from his family's pillow factory in the U.S. to bankroll American Hippie. Towards the end of the Devore interview Avni gets to chime in with a few of her own thoughts from working on the movie via a web chat.
Wolf shows off a selection of photos from his personal collection taken during the production (5 minutes), while a pair of separate still galleries feature additional production stills and promotional materials. Grindhouse rounds out this massive collection of bonus material with their re-release trailer for American Hippie as well as trailers for other movies in their catalog that have already been released or will be coming our way in the future: Corruption (out next month), The Big Gundown, The Swimmer, Massacre Mafia Style, Gone with the Pope, Cannibal Holocaust, Cat in the Brain, The Beyond, Cannibal Ferox, I Drink Your Blood, Pieces, The Tough Ones, Poor White Trash 2 (a.k.a Scum of the Earth), Death Game, Family Enforcer, Ice House, and another trailer for Cannibal Holocaust prepared by Grindhouse for its 2005 re-release. There is also an easy-to-find Easter Egg video of the Norwegian program Film Junkiene that focuses on American Hippie.
Horror novelist (The Light at the End, Animals) and anthology editor John Skipp contributed a short booklet of liner notes that also features the aforementioned Scott Bradley quote and makes a well-worded case for American Hippie being "the greatest motion picture ever made", sort of.
The second disc of this set is a DVD copy with a standard-definition presentation of the movie and nearly all of the bonuses (with the exception of only ten of the Grindhouse trailers), while the third features Sefer's original cut of American Hippie under the filming title The Hitchhiker. This cut has the deleted scenes from the first two discs incorporated into the narrative, but the running time is only increased by about a minute. According to an introductory card, Grindhouse's print was discovered in 2010 in the Israel Film Archive in Jerusalem and is believed to be the only copy left in existence. The transfer was done at DB Digital in Tel Aviv and represents the best work that could be done with the available elements. Picture and sound quality leave much to be desired and since this cut features nothing radically different from the spiffier-looking American version its inclusion here is for the sake of satisfying the hardcore fans of the movie.
Stephen Romano, the Shock Festival author and the Drew Struzan of modern exploitation movie posters, was commissioned to create a new poster for American Hippie's much-touted theatrical reissue. Grindhouse saw fit to include that artwork on the front of this Blu-ray package, making this the most complete set of this film that could be imaginable.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this year's Miami Connection. I never thought Grindhouse Releasing would ever work up the funds or the sheer nerve to give An American Hippie in Israel a home video bow, but not only did they do so they did it while surpassing each and every one of our expectations. Sporting a fresh digital transfer and enough supplementary material to choke one of those phony-looking sharks, this is truly one of the Blu-rays to own in 2013 for rabid admirers of psychotronic cult cinema. Grindhouse is back and better than ever. Plan accordingly.
This release is limited to 2000 copies, so get yours before they all run out.