DVDs for 10-13-09 – Macaroni Combat, Rollercoaster Horror and Ozsploitation

Look on the back of the case of Eagles Over London (Severin) and you’ll see this Italian World War II action adventure identified as a “Macaroni Combat.” This rather clumsy moniker is a recently coined phrase in the “spaghetti western” vein but hardly expressive of this military caper thriller from Italian genre specialist Enzo Castellari (of the original The Inglorious Bastards fame). The plot is quite clever: a squad of Germans don British uniforms and identities and infiltrate Britain through the chaos of the evacuation of Dunkirk, while a British Lt. (a colorless Frederick Stafford with a thick European accent) stumbles upon the plot and tries to track them through London before they can execute their missions. Castellari is not an elegant director, but then that’s not what makes a World War II adventure like this work. Made in the shadow of The Dirty Dozen and The Battle of Britain, this film straddles both genres, delivering impressive spectacle—from the evacuation of Dunkirk (shot on the coast of Spain) to the air combat of the Battle of Britain (largely shot on soundstage in Rome)—and espionage action. There’s a lot  of dubbing (most of the Italians are replaced on the soundtrack) and a cacophony of unlikely accents (the aforementioned Stafford, whose accent is justified by his Hungarian origins, and Van Johnson as a British Air Marshall right out of middle America), but it’s still quite entertaining, like an energetic B-movie with a lavish budget (you can see the money poured into the Dunkirk scenes, with its epic vistas filled with extras and a strafing run by a German fighter) and energetic direction.

Eagles Over London
The Germans in London in "Eagles Over London"

Originally titled La battaglia d’Inghilterra (“The Battle of Britain”) and also known as Battle Squadron, this film never received an official American release according to Quentin Tarantino (a big fan of the film and of Castellari’s oeuvre). Severin took a cue from QT to give the film its American DVD and Blu-ray debut and they got Tarantino to participate in the extras: a 14-minute interview with director Enzo G. Castellari (the discuss the film and the oddities of the Italian movie industry of the time) and an appearance hosting a rare film screening in L.A. with Castellari, gushing on stage while a woozy handheld video camera records the occasion. Also features a brief deleted scene with the German High Command discussing the invastion (in German with English subtitles).

Drag Me To Hell (Universal) is Sam Raimi’s return to his roots after the blockbuster success of the three Spider-Man movies. This rollercoaster horror film is like an EC horror comic of the 1950s come to life, an unforgiving morality tale with playfully gruesome  twists and a doozy of a gallows humor. Alison Lohman plays the demure loan officer who, desperate to prove to her boss she can handle the tough decisions, refuses the wrong customer: a sneering crone of a gypsy woman (Lorna Raver as an old-world nightmare of a witchy hag) who pitches a curse (and her false teeth) to the all-American girl. Raimi is less interested in scaring his audience than giving them a memorable ride through a series of torments, from a savage ambush in an underground garage by the spitting, spiteful old gypsy to a possessed fly, a furious demon and lots of oozing effluvia just pouring over our hapless would-be heroine. There’s a gross-out factor to the sure, but it’s pitched at levels of cartoonish excess and directed with a gothic-gone-wild style of flying cameras and wild imagery designed to get squeals of appreciation rather than groans of disgust. Raimi’s less unhinged here than in Evil Dead films—he seems less willing to really go crazy here—but he’s having too much fun playing with his Hollywood budget to let it slow things down.

It’s available on DVD in separate the theatrical PG-13 version and the unrated director’s cut (which is no longer but features some alternate scenes). Both feature thirteen production diaries, short featurettes on the special effects and props and other behind-the-scenes goodies that run around three minutes apiece and can be viewed individually or straight through as a single featurette with introductions by co-star Justin Long. The Blu-ray edition features both cuts, but the production diaries and the rest of the Blu-ray exclusive supplements (trailers, news and the usual community chat functions) are BD-Live exclusive. That makes sense for the interactive supplements but it leaves anyone without a BD-Live enabled player (which is a sizable percentage of the Blu-ray audience) unable to see the production featurettes that are included on the regular DVD. That just seems like lazy engineering, and will feel like a real rip-off to a lot of the Blu-ray audience.

Atom Egoyan has fascinated by communication in the video age since his earliest films and he continues his exploration—brought up to date with chat rooms and video interface on the Internet—in Adoration (Sony), the story of a teenager who tells his class that his father was a terrorist who killed his mother. This is Egoyan psychodrama at its most extreme, a film about lies and truths and unanswered questions, where stories and memories get stirred up and discussion held at arm’s length through internet chat rooms. The script sacrifices rational behavior for dramatic confrontations and social experiments, creating a film that is more conversation piece than human theater, but that’s something that Egoyan does well. The DVD features deleted scenes, an interview with director Atom Egoyan and four production featurettes. The Blu-ray also features “The Fabulous Picture Show.”

Not Quite Hollywood (Magnet) is one of the most entertaining and affectionate documentaries about cinema that you’ll ever find, Mark Hartley’s survey of the less heralded films of the seventies and eighties—sex comedies, action films, Aussie horrors, outlaw thrillers and other drive-in fare—is more than just an introduction to a film industry largely ignored and forgotten. It’s a celebration of seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and filmmakers on the frontier and it’s chock full of jaw-dropping film clips so enticing you’ll be tempted to search out every last film, famous (Mad Max), infamous (Turkey Shoot) and unknown. The DVD features commentary by director Hartley with many of the featured directors, deleted and extended scenes and an interview with director Brian Trenchard-Smith by fan Quentin Tarantino among the supplements. I reviewed the film in detail for Parallax View here.

A strong directorial debut from Belgian director Pieter Van Hees, Left Bank (IFC) is a moody horror film about a world class track star (Eline Kuppens) recovering from injury and exhaustion who moves in with a new boyfriend in his Left Bank apartment building. It seems pretty great, until she discovers that last tenant disappeared mysteriously and finds her neighbors an odd sort. Oh, and it seems the building was built on a sacrificial pit from medieval times and the creepy energy invades her dreams, her neighbors and soon her entire existence. It has an uneasiness that recalls Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant (Polanski just doesn’t seem to go away quietly) but with a decidedly pagan bent, and Van Hees focuses on the character drama and dynamics, letting the horror and supernatural elements bubble to the surface. It’s not particularly scary, but it is unsettling and remarkably effective and it ends with a warp that you won’t see coming but, in retrospect, is perfectly in tune with the odd energy of the film. Includes 15 minutes of deleted scenes. In Dutch with English subtitles.

The title of Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (Warner) is bit misleading: the four films are neither classics nor in most cases even horror. The Walking Dead (1936) is the best of the bunch, a mix of gangster drama and mad scientist thriller, with Boris Karloff as an ex-con framed for murder and brought back to life after being executed. Michael Curtiz kind of tosses the film off but Karloff brings a sympathetic quality to the rehabilitated patsy who just wants a shot at going straight and ends up sacrificed in a vendetta. His vengeance isn’t even malevolent—he’s more like the ghost of a conscience than an evil spirit—but it is satisfying in a B-movie fashion. In Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Karloff plays a disfigured descendent of the original mad scientist who rents out of his family castle to a film crew and then uses them for spare parts as he continues the family business. His face looks like it has been melted under the hot lights of the movie set, and after a stylish prologue settles into a mundane horror cheapie. The Bela Lugosi section of this collection is represented by a pair of horror spoofs. Karloff, Lugosi and Peter Lorre all co-star in You’ll Find Out (1940), but play second fiddle to bandleader Kay Kyser, and Lugosi is back spoofing his image as a mad scientist in Zombies on Broadway (1944), a comedy vehicle for radio stars Wally Brown and Alan Carney. There’s critical commentary on the two Karloff films.

Dusan Makavejev Free Radical: Eclipse Series 18 (Criterion/Eclipse) features the first three unclassifiable features from the Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev, who blurred the line between fiction and documentary with a series of films that stirred up sex and politics with a sense of whimsy, in a three disc set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label. Man Is Not a Bird (1965) is set in a mining town on the Bulgarian border where a documentary crew interviews the workers in a free-association narrative. Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) digs deeper into sex and romance in the communist nation with a low-budget production shot under the radar of the state censors. In Innocence Unprotected (1968), Makavejev takes an unfinished 1942 film and reworks it into an absurdist reflection on Yugoslavian history. All in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles. No supplements, but some informative liner notes by Michael Koresky.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights (including the original 1987 The Stepfather and TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Volume 2) visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

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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