During the late eighties CBS Television had a hit on their hands with Beauty and the Beast. It updated the classic fairytale to modern day New York, repositioning Beauty as an assistant D.A. and the Beast as an underground dweller living among the freaks and outcasts. Over three seasons and 56 episodes the series combined romance with detective work to impressive viewing figures, at least during its first two years. The show bowed out during the summer of 1990, a full year before Disney came along and monopolised the fairytale for a new generation, but not before it had exerted some influence.
Meridian received its first screenings just as the television series was winding down. Despite switching the action to Italy and there not being a single D.A. in sight, assistant or otherwise, it’s hard not to detect a little of the late eighties’ Beauty and the Beast in its construction. Ostensibly a fantasy-horror it also finds room for a spot of soft-focus romance as though courting the same female demographic who had made up a significant part of CBS’ audience. And yet this is may seem a little odd given Meridian’s status as a Full Moon production, the company behind the Puppet Master franchise, and one written by the same man that had penned the likes of From Beyond and Re-Animator.
The head of Full Moon, Charles Band, had been producing B-pictures since the early seventies, whilst his father Albert had been doing much the same since the fifties. He knew the industry, in other words, and knew exactly what he was doing when introducing Meridian’s brand of fantasy to a roster more readily concerned with all-out horror and dystopian science fiction. Furthermore he sought to oversee the project personally, installing himself as director after a break of five years (this would be his first feature in the role since 1985’s Trancers) and ensuring the finest of his previous collaborators were involved. Brian De Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Body Double) provided the score. Future three-time Oscar winner Greg Cannom was responsible for the creature effects and make-up. And Dennis Paoli, writer of some of Band’s biggest successes, was positioned behind the typewriter. Band also had the fortuity to cast Sherilyn Fenn in the lead role just as she was beginning work on Twin Peaks - in fact, both debuted during the week in April 1990.
Fenn plays Catherine, a young woman who inherits a castle in Italy following the death of her father. Her arrival coincides with Fauvry’s World of Wonders coming to town, a mysterious group of travelling players led by the charismatic Lawrence (Malcolm Jamieson). He also has an identical twin, it soon transpires - we discover as much when Lawrence drugs Catherine and her friend Gina (Charlie) so that he and his brother may take advantage of them. It’s here where things begin to get messy, both in plot terms and overall execution. The twin is also cursed to live his life as a beast. Catherine begins to develop romantic feelings towards the beast despite him raping her. And British actress Hilary Mason (best known for playing one of the psychic sisters in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now) pops up to explain the family history and why Catherine is having visions of her dead aunt.
Unsurprisingly, the whole rape-romance storyline - no matter how often we are reminded that only one of the twins is evil - sits a little uncomfortably. It is also played out to ensure plenty of soft-focus slow-motion nudity from Fenn as though the demographic being chased isn’t a female one after all, but rather adolescent boys. And yet the generic elements are all played down so as to never lose focus of the more Mills & Boon-ish aspects. Whereas screenwriter Paoli was always most at home with the gross-out horror-comedy typified by the first of the Re-Animator films, here he has to curtail such impulses in favour of an approach that never seems to interest him. The lack of enthusiasm is best summed up by Phil Fondacaro’s appearance as ‘dwarf’ - his character doesn’t even deserve a name despite a healthy amount of screen-time, but instead features solely as a lazy and tokenistic presence amidst Fauvry’s travelling players.
Not that it’s all bad news. Meridian has a more polished look than most B-pictures of the time thanks to its Italian locations. (Band would regularly use the country for his productions; the same castle also came in handy for The Pit and the Pendulum and Castle Freak.) Donaggio also contributes in this respect, although his score may sound a little dated to 2012 ears. Also worth the nod of approval are Fenn for her game performance despite the script’s weaknesses (the role is more Two Moon Junction than it is Twin Peaks) and Band for at least trying to do something a little different among the sequels and the sci-fi. That he doesn’t manage to pull it off makes this more a film for the Full Moon fan and the cultist, though there’s enough here to at least earn an ‘Of Interest’ label.
Meridian has been released onto UK disc for the first time courtesy of 88 Films. The film is presented in its original aspect of 1.33:1 - having been made with the video market in mind - and comes across perfectly well on this new dual-layered DVD. There is some light damage on times but for the most part we are dealing with a crisp, clean image. The slight softness, I suspect, was an intentional move by cinematographer Mac Ahlberg. The original stereo soundtrack is also in place, having been remastered for this release, and poses no issues. The dialogue levels are fine and Donaggio’s score suitably catered for. English subtitles during the brief passages of Italian have been burnt into the image; there are no optional subs for the hard-of-hearing.
Extras extend to the original theatrical trailer (Meridian having been treated to a limited theatrical run before heading to laserdisc and VHS) and one of Full Moon’s ‘Video Zone’ pieces which pre-empted the DVD featurette. Entitled ‘Kiss of the Beast’, this five-minute mini-making of chats to Band and Fenn among others as it relates the film’s origins. No remastering or restoration has been carried out on the featurette resulting in an authentic videotape ‘sheen’ to proceedings - the perfect nostalgia trip. As with all 88 Films releases we also find a host of trailers for other Charles Band-associated movies.
Beauty and the Beast, Charles Band style.