The Brood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – I’d seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood before watching the terrific new Criterion edition but it never really registered the way it did this time. Perhaps the quality of the presentation (newly remastered from a 2K master supervised by Cronenberg) helped me connect this time—Mark Irwin’s cinematography not only establishes the chilly tenor of the film, it belies the low budget with such strong, controlled images—but I think it’s more a matter of time and appreciation. I love the raw, primal imagery of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid but here that primal body horror erupts from an environment of normalcy (albeit one of social disconnection), a seemingly stable world where the suppressed horrors are no longer held in check.
The beauty and the power of Cronenberg’s body horror—of flesh invaded, transforming, rebelling—has always been how they are completely visceral experiences that grab the viewers on a biological level and evocative metaphors at the same time. In The Brood the metaphor is both on the surface—the emotionally damaged Nola (Samantha Eggar) transforms her most powerful emotional impulses into biological incarnations of her darkest desires—and underneath it. Cronenberg quite famously explained that the film was “my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic,” and he had the emotional bruises of a painful divorce of his own to inspire him. But what came home to me on this viewing was not the jealousies and feelings of betrayal behind divorce but the scars of child abuse that take root in the victim. Nola is a survivor of abuse and when she becomes the willing guinea pig in the radical experimental “psychoplasmic therapy” (a term right out of the zeitgeist of sixties and seventies fads) of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), she quite literally gives birth to those psychic wounds. Her mutant children are rage babies, born of her most intense, unresolved emotional storms, and they enact the vengeance she desires (perhaps without her even knowing or understanding).
Art Hindle’s Frank Carveth, the estranged husband of Nola and father of their daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds), is ostensibly the film’s hero. He’s trying to save Candy from the abuse he believes she suffered at Nola’s hands during her last visit to mommy at the private institute, gathering evidence against Raglan from the former patients left damaged and diseased by his experimental therapy, victims whose bodies are now in a kind of rebellion. Hindle is something of an emotional blank and it seems that Cindy Hinds, the little girl who plays Candace, is as well. At least at first. It becomes a lot more like shock as the film develops, the portrait of an abused child blocking out the incidents of violence, shutting down in the face of horrific images, refusing to talk about it like she’s afraid to lose her parents if she admits it. She hides the violence perpetrated on her and suppresses the terror of her mother’s mutant brood. As Cronenberg so clearly shows us, those emotions and traumas don’t go away. They erupt in terrible ways.
Criterion’s superb edition features the original half-hour documentary “Birth Pains” about the development and production of The Brood and Cronenberg’s early films featuring (among others) actress Samantha Eggar and cinematographer Mark Irwin, plus recent interviews with Cronenberg (from 2011) and actors Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds (from 2013), both conducted by Fangoria magazine editor Chris Alexander, an almost surreal clip from The Merv Griffin Show from 1980 featuring Oliver Reed, Orson Welles, and Charo (they never actually discuss the movie but the banter is interesting), and a fold-out leaflet with a new essay by Carrie Rickey.
The most exciting supplement, however, is a new 4K restoration of Cronenberg’s second feature Crimes of the Future (1970), which looks forward to themes in The Brood. The mutations and diseases discovered by our detached narrator, radical dermatologist Adrian Tripod, are quintessential Cronenberg inventions, from “creative cancer” (which develops new organs in one patient’s body) to “Metaphysical Import Export.” Cronenberg creates an eerie futuristic ghost-town with his weirdly empty public spaces and the alienated halls of the “House of Skin.” It was shot without synch sound, and the antiseptic soundtrack, dominated by a dry narrator, only makes the film more unsettling.
John Carpenter’s Vampires (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is not just the first and only vampire film from the great American horror director, it’s the closest he’s gotten to directing an actual western. It’s not simply the dusty, dusky New Mexico setting or the Ry Cooder-esque electric country blues score. He and screenwriter Don Jakoby transform John Steakley’s novel “Vampire$” into a perverse remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo by way of Sergio Leone, with James Woods as a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, whore-mongering John Wayne leading a wild bunch of hard-edged vampire hunters. It’s machismo run amuck and Carpenter loves it.
The film kicks off with an attack on a vampire nest, a SWAT team-like operation turned gory spectacle punctuated by the fiery explosions of bloodsuckers yanked into the light of day (the only other sure way to kill a vampire is a stake through the heart, which is not as easy as it sounds in the midst of hand-to-fang combat). But as Crow’s Vatican sponsored team celebrates victory with hookers and booze, retribution visits in the form of Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith and his imposing 6’5” frame), a powerful vampire master who takes prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee) as his next lady of the night in one of the most outrageously sexually suggestive scenes to get by in an R film and slices and dices the rest of the partygoers with his Ginsu fingernails. Crow and his sole surviving team member Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) grab Katrina, whose fresh blood ties have established a psychic link to Valek, and get the hell out of Dodge to regroup. Team Crow inherits a rookie priest (Tim Guinee) who provides clues to Valek’s master plan and the motley crew plans their attack, and after a shaky start proves a quick study, not so much by natural talent as by sheer commitment to the work no matter the danger to him.
This is Carpenter in prime form. Easily his most violent film, it features iconoclast heroes with a streak of misogyny and unrepentant machismo, which provides a perverse comic book irony. These guys are emissaries of the Vatican, with Woods playing Jack Crow with the glee of a choir boy gone bad. He’s great in the role, sardonic and snappy, raised by the Catholic church into a man who knows that there’s a God and battles the supernatural on a daily basis but hasn’t any sentimentality for priests, who he sometimes treats as bureaucrats with misplaced priorities. He’s not above beating the shit out of a priest to get information and their treatment of Katrina during her transformation is almost inhuman, though Montoya softens enough to show a little tenderness and concern for the woman he tied naked on a bed (you can’t be too careful with a vampire in the throes of rebirth).
The vampires themselves are a terrific creation, a mix of Catholic lore and primordial roots born of a black prayer and wedded to the night, but sustained by blood and earth. There are no coffins for these creatures reduced to animal instincts. They gather in nests hidden in abandoned houses and, in one of the film’s most memorable images, they climb directly out of the desert soil.
From the opening shots of the New Mexico desert, which Carpenter captures with his trademark Panavision frame at sunrise, the plains covered in long shadows and blood-red hues, his sleek, stark images and stripped down, no-holds-barred action deliver pure pulp glory.
The Blu-ray debut features the commentary track recorded by Carpenter for the original DVD release and the vintage promotional featurette “The Making of John Carpenter’s Vampires,” plus the trademark isolated score audio track and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
This Twilight Time release is limited to 5,000 units, which is almost twice the number of the usual 3,000 unit run.
Kwaidan (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 quartet of ancient ghost stories, may not be strictly speaking a horror film. It’s not scary or particularly unsettling apart for a few exquisitely created images. It is, however, breathtakingly lovely, visually composed like a painting, scored and sound designed by Toru Takemitsu with a spareness that leans on silence, and suffused in sadness, regret, and loss. The four stories play out with a deliberate direction that emphasizes the stillness and the film runs just over three hours in this new restoration, which is 20 minutes longer than the version previously released on film and disc in the U.S.
The story is made up of four classic Japanese folktales adapted from the work of Lafcadio Hearn. “The Black Hair” follows a samurai who abandons his devoted wife for better prospects with a rich wife and a new master and then returns to find… what he finds. “The Woman of the Snow” is a forest spirit that spares a woodcutter so long as he keeps a promise. “Hoichi the Earless,” the longest of the chapters at more than an hour, begins with a stylized sea battle created in a studio tank and then resurrects the ghosts of battle to hear the epic song histories of a blind musician. “In a Cup of Tea,” based on an unfinished story, plays with the idea of a story without closure and then merges story with storyteller.
This film is directed with a total control that would make Josef von Sternberg jealous. Kobayashi shot the film entirely in a studio built in an airplane hanger with painted backdrops (in “The Woman in the Snow,” the clouds of the hand-painted sky become eyes watching the woodcutter) and sets pared to their essence, like an ancient scroll painting. There’s not a natural image in the film.
This is a beloved film, embraced for its beauty and the haunting quality cast by its unreal sound design and painstaking direction. I confess I’m not one entranced by its spell—I find the film remote, a meditation upon stories and storytelling rather than a story told—but I appreciate the craft and the atmosphere, not to mention the amazing quality of the restoration. This disc is so vivid both visually and aurally. And in some sequences, the film does indeed manage to hold me in its thrall.
The 2K restoration was mastered from Kobayashi’s original cut of the film and presented in Japanese mono with a new English subtitle translation. It features new commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, new interviews with assistant director and restoration supervisor Kiyoshi Ogasawara and literary scholar Christopher Benfey, who discusses Lafcadio Hearn’s stories, and a 1993 discussion between Kobayashi and fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, plus trailers and a fold-out insert with a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Strange Invaders (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Part offbeat horror film, part UFO conspiracy, and part tribute to 1950s alien invasion pictures, this good-natured comic sci-fi film stars Paul Le Mat as a college professor who goes in search of his ex-wife and finds a time-warped town that shouldn’t exist populated by bug-eyed monsters that shoot lasers. With the help of a ditzy tabloid reporter he digs into a plot that involves a small army of ET’s cousins in human faces (marching into modern day New York dressed like they’ve stepped out of Happy Days), a lonely man in an insane asylum who may not be crazy after all, and the US government. The film hasn’t looked this good since it was first released. Finally restored to full CinemaScope dimensions, it’s a gorgeous looking disc, so much better than the old video and laserdisc presentations. The colors (a mixture of the candy colors of golden age fantasy cinema and the muted hues of nostalgia) are lush and the hazy scenes of the stuck-in-fifties small town feel like some misty-eyed time warp with a few weird twists. Co-writer William Condon may be better known as Bill Condon, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and outstanding director in his own right.
It carries over the commentary by director Michael Laughlin and co-writer Condon recorded years ago, plus the trailer, trademark isolated score audio track, and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 40th Anniversary (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – Let’s do the time-warp again! The cabaret musical created by Richard O’Brien, channeling old Hollywood horror and science fiction movies through rock and roll and sexual liberation, was originally a flop when it was turned into a bright, high-energy movie but it audiences revived the film as a midnight movie sensation when they redefined it as an audience participation event, dressing up as characters from the movie, calling back to the screen and even reenacting scenes on stage in tandem with the film. Oddly enough, without all the audience chants and flying toast, there’s a surprisingly entertaining film behind the party participation. Tim Curry’s swaggering camp vamp unleashes the libidos of virginal sweethearts Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick to a score of fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll tunes numbers when they take refuge in his castle on a dark and stormy night. This kind of loving lampoon rarely works, but the reference-riddled script (full of loopy puns and clever gags), energetic direction and excessive performances capture the right mix of gee whiz and come hither.
Features both the American and British versions of the film, commentary track by creator/actor Richard O’Brien and co-star Patricia Quinn, an audience participation picture-in-picture track with a live version of the show and a “callback” subtitle track that cues viewers to classic audience responses, featurettes, two deleted musical scenes, outtakes, alternate opening and ending, and other celebrations of the culture of “Rocky Horror.”
Also new and notable:
Scream and Scream Again (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a better film than its title would suggest, chalks up a 1960s horror hat-trick with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing together in a film about a cold-blooded scientist who tries to create an emotionless breed of humans through surgery, and winds up creating a homicidal maniac. Gordon Hessler directs. Features commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Tim Sullivan, an interview with Uta Levka, and a featurette on director Gordon Hessler, along with the trademark isolated score audio track, and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
The Oblong Box (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is also from Hessler, his shot at Edgar Allan Poe (it’s actually loosely based on “The Premature Burial”), with Corman regular Vincent Price hiding his cursed brother away in a British manor house, while doctor Christopher Lee helps him plot his escape… and ends up getting him buried alive! Vengeance ensues. Hessler took over the film after the original director, Michael Reeves (The Conqueror Worm), died.
House of the Long Shadows (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Pete Walker, stars Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing, along with John Carradine and Desi Arnaz Jr., and the disc features separate commentary tracks by director Pete Walker and film historian David Del Valle and an interview with Walker.
Count Yorga, Vampire (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), directed by Bob Kelljan, stars Robert Quarry as the elegant vampire Count Yorga, who settles into 1970s Los Angeles to prey on bored housewives. This edition has commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Tim Sullivan, who also deliver a reading of a print interview with Robert Quarry, plus stills, a radio tribute to Robert Quarry, isolated score audio track, and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
The sequel The Return of Count Yorga (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), which reunites director Bob Kelljan and star Robert Quarry, comes from another label and features commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and actor Rudy De Luca.
Wes Craven’s Shocker: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) stars Mitch Pileggi (before The X-Files made him a minor cult actor) as a condemned killer becomes a free floating spirit inhabiting bodies at will when his electrocution goes wrong. Michael Murphy, Peter Berg, Heather Langenkamp, and Ted Raimi co-star in the 1989 film. Features
The Sentinel (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), a 1977 gothic chiller from Michael Winner, stars Chris Sarandon and Cristina Raines and features old hands Martin Balsam, John Carradine, José Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, and Sylvia Miles. This one has three commentary tracks: one by Michael Winner, one by writer / producer Jeffrey Konvitch, and one by actress Cristina Raines, plus an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton.
The Legacy (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), directed by Richard Marquand from a story by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster, stars Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. The disc includes an interview with special effects artist Robin Grantham.