DVD of the Week – Halloween 2008 edition – Hitchcock and Horror

It must have been kismet that I received my copy of the Fox Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection late, too late to feature it the week it actually came out. Because now it leads off the Halloween week MSN DVD column. Hitch wasn’t really a horror director outside of Psycho, but The Master of Suspense was a master of thrillers, and this set features his very first thriller:

The Lodger was Alfred Hitchcock’s third film, his first classic, and arguably the first “Alfred Hitchcock movie.” Moody and textured, the 1926 silent thriller stars music hall superstar Ivor Novello as a mysterious figure who arrives at a boarding house out of the foggy night. Hitch creates some of his most expressionist images (the ceiling dissolves to a man pacing above, the fog that swirls about the mysterious lodger) and introduces his murky world of guilt and innocence in the story of an eccentric figure who may be Jack the Ripper. Previously available only in inferior versions, this remastered and digitally restored edition looks superb and offers two scores: Ashley Irwin’s vivid, dramatic orchestral score, and a more somber and impressionistic one by Paul Zaza.

The set features eight films all together, including two of his early British thrillers (the classic Sabotage with Sylvia Sidney and lighter and lesser Young and Innocent), his World War II drama Lifeboat and all four films made for David Selznick: the Gothic classic Rebecca (Hitchcock’s only film to win an Oscar for Best Picture), the Gregory Peck films Spellbound and The Paradine Case, and the romantic masterpiece Notorious. Alfred Hitchcock had everything he needed to make cinema magic when he undertook Notorious: a brilliant cast of beautiful, seductive stars (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at their most galmorous) and excellent character actors (Claude Rains and Louis Calhern), one of Hollywood’s smartest and most adept screenwriters (Ben Hecht), and best of all a producer with lots of money and class who was too busy to interfere–for once. The result is one of his most sparkling romantic thrillers, smooth and silky with a dangerous, darkly suggestive undercurrent of sex, power, and sacrifice.

The DVD is featured on my MSN column here.

Lucio Fulci’s surreal giallo masterpiece The Beyond has been out of print for years. Now Grindhouse brings their restored edition back out. Lucio “King of the Eyeball Gag” Fulci is hardly a favorite of mine, but this film is a wild, eerie, mad masterpiece. The largely incoherent plot has something to do with a turn of the century curse and a doorway to hell in the cellar of an old New Orleans hotel, but then plot in giallo is rarely more than an pretense. If you can overlook little things like wooden acting and clumsy dialogue and arbitrary twists, you’ll find an insane tale of zombies from hell invading Earth and eating their way through a cast of crucified martyrs, blind visionaries, creepy hotel handymen and befuddled cops, while a plucky pair of heroes desperately fleeing a horde of hungry undead. The blood red art direction is eerily beautiful and Fulci’s relentless long takes, punctuated by jolting shock cuts and eruptions of grotesque violence, creates a mood of sheer paranoid horror right down to the final, mind bending image. Just let yourself get carried away on the creepy visuals and it’s a surprisingly stylish treat, an eerie, edgy bit of gothic gore pitched in all it’s bone crunching, flesh ripping, organ splatting glory. But beware: this sadistic, sanguinary hell-spawn tale is for gore-hounds only.

Read the DVD review here.

And moving to the small screen, we have The Outer Limits, ostensibly a science fiction anthology but really more about the fantastic and, yes, monsters. Now it’s collected in The Outer Limits – The Original Series Complete Box Set. Always in the shadow of its more literate cousin The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits didn’t always have a twist ending, but it did delve into the dark side of humanity in episodes tragic, poignant, and comic, and it never failed to deliver the “bear,” the network code name for the weekly creature. It could be anything, from almost human to practically abstract: a glowing creature from another dimension (The Galaxy Being), a mutant victim of a future holocaust (The Man Who Was Never Born), an weird, amorphous blob in a peep show box (Don’t Open Till Doomsday), and the show’s most memorable creatures, demented alien ants with vaguely human faces and a drive to conquer (The Zanti Misfits, featuring guest victim Bruce Dern). What’s surprising is how well the show holds up after all this time. Though woefully underfunded, this series had a wicked creative streak running through it (give much of the credit to producer and frequent writer Joseph Stefano, who scripted Hitchcock’s Psycho prior to this assignment and brought some of that dark dream sensibility to this show), strong casts, and solid directors. The abbreviated second season is highlighted by I, Robot (starring Howard Da Silva as a salt-of-the-earth lawyer who comes out of retirement to defend a robot on charges of murder) and two episode by legendary science fiction author and scriptwriter Harlan Ellison, including the season opener Soldier and the award winning Demon With A Glass Hand, the latter a surreal existential thriller in an abstract world where an amnesiac (Robert Culp) runs from futuristic soldier determined to murder him. Shot almost entirely in LA’s atmospheric Bradbury Building (so memorably used in Blade Runner and the original D.O.A.) by director Byron Haskin, whose fog and shadows style pushes the dislocation to unsettling extremes, it remains one of the great moments to TV of the fantastic.

I don’t pretend that Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead is a modern classic, but it is classic Troma filmmaking at its most Troma-tic.

The first Troma film in years to get a theatrical run is an aggressively absurd, outrageously gory and comically grotesque horror farce: part  Poltergeist, part Alien, part Dead Alive, all zombie chicken musical, with more excruciating puns that you thought was humanly possible. It’s a hoot (a cluck?). The 82-minute Poultry in Motion is an honest and revealing warts-and-all portrait of the tensions and stumbles in making an ultra-low budget exploitation film with cheap labor and unpaid extras and support staff.

Read the DVD review here.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: Hell Ride, Billy The Kid and Journey to the Center of the Earth (in both standard and 3-D versions):

This new take on the old classic isn’t based on the Jules Verne classic so much as inspired by it. In fact, the novel becomes a guidebook for a tectonic researcher (Brendan Fraser), his nephew (Josh Hutcherson) and the Icelandic hiking guide (Anita Briem) who inadvertently joins their adventure through underground world with an entire subterranean ecosystem (like a terrarium, explains the nephew) at the Earth’s core. It’s a fairly generic succession of challenges, colorful and at times fantastical (hopscotching across a bridge of rocks floating in the sky) but on the whole unmemorable. The DVD and Blu-ray editions both feature the standard and 3-D versions of the film, but the vaunted 3-D of the theatrical version is significantly diminished by the old red and green glasses for home video.

TV: War And Remembrance: The Complete Series, The 4400: The Complete Series and The Complete Inspector Lynley Mysteries:

Nathaniel Parker is Inspector Thomas Lynley, a neat, orderly, intense aristocrat with cultured tastes and little patience with incompetence and corruption, and Sharon Small is Sergeant Barbara Havers, a rumpled working class cop who fought her way through the boy’s club that is the British police system to become a detective, in this British mystery series based on the novels of Elizabeth George. The show is one of the best of the new breed of British mysteries and offers a fascinating glimpse into the awkwardness of the British class system.

Special Releases: Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition, Pieces (featuring the memorable tag line: “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre”) and Strange Behavior:

The debut feature by Michael Laughlin (Strange Invaders), about college kids transformed into killers by behavior modification experiments, is not the only first horror film made in New Zealand, but also the first screenplay by future Oscar winning screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters)

Blu-ray: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street:

Here’s a Halloween pick for you: a macabre musical about a sociopathic barber (Johnny Depp) with flashing razors and a demented cook (Helena Bonham Carter) who hides the evidence of his murders into meat pies, directed by Tim Burton, the dark fantastist of American cinema, as both threepenny opera and Grand Guignol. It’s a revenge melodrama in the squalor of a 19th century London the color of bone and ash and stone. The rare flashes of color belong to the crimson gushes from the throats of his victims or the dream world of memory and fantasy. What’s missing is the playful vitality that Burton normally brings to his films.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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