Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way ofFreaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)
This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.
The Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.
Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.
This is LA as a culture of predators and prey. On one of her first nights in the city, staying in a seedy motel (run by a thuggish, intimidating Keanu Reeves) that is home to drop-outs and runaways, there’s an intruder in the her room. Not a person but a cougar that has already sniffed out the fresh meat in town. Put another way, Jesse is the delicate angelfish swimming in a pool of sharks but she learns quickly. Two hardened, competitive models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) size her up as the competition immediately at some industry soiree and begin immediately with the head games. A freelance make-up artist (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing but is it sisterly concern or something else? Malone is a seemingly warm, normal, human connection in a culture of surfaces and attitudes, but when we drop in at her day job styling corpses at a funeral home her whole nature is tossed into question when she uses her subjects as sex dolls. She’s an artist who wants to possess her creations. Heathcoate is perfectly feral as the cutthroat superstar model who plays mindgames with the competition while Abbey Lee, a real-life modeling veteran, brings out an ambiguous mix of hunger, loss, desperation, and opportunism as she loses jobs to Jesse, who starts to become as brittle and self-absorbed as the rest of the walkway meat market.
The Neon Demon was booed at Cannes and almost universally panned by critics that saw the film as vapid or shallow, but then that’s taking it all at face value. Beauty is the beast in this a horror film as fashion layout. Refn’s stripped down production design and eighties neon visuals are accompanied by synth soundtracks and dance club sounds, but the film is also filled with images of fertility, lunar cycles, hedonism, and occult symbols. What begins as an allegory for the hunger for youth and beauty with the modeling / show business industry as a form of vampirism becomes absurdly literal, channeling cannibalism and Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. I don’t see it as failed social satire, as its critics claim, but as a more primal portrait of the obsession for youth and beauty and the drive to control, dominate, package, own, and ultimately devour it. Jesse is the latest sacrifice to the gods of success and desire and power in NWR’s monogrammed photo shoot. And even if you don’t go with Refn’s predatory allegory, you can simply luxuriate in the glorious images and mad imagination of the modeling industry as sacrificial altar. This is style as substance and it is delicious.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and actress Elle Fanning and the featurettes “About Neon Demon” and “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon.”
What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh(1969) andThe Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.
The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.
Deadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.
It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.
He plays Special Forces veteran turned soldier-for-hire Wade Wilson, a cynic who emerges from a sadistic experiment with an indestructible body, a face like ground beef, and a penchant for turning to the camera to crack jokes about the absurdity of it all. By which I mean everything from the creatively violent mayhem of the moment to the superhero genre as a whole. He’s out for revenge against the mad scientist (Ed Skrein in generic British baddie mode) who made the transformation as painful as possible and then tried to leash him as an attack dog for an international assassination business. Not so successful in the last part. Wade escapes, takes the name Deadpool, dons a red spandex costume that covers him from head to toe, and tracks down his sweetie (Morena Baccarin), a hard-bitten hooker with whom he found true love and great sex. A lot of sex. Among the surprises of this R-rated superhero lark is its sex-positive attitude toward adult play and kinky games between consenting adults.
The rest is an unconventional treatment of a conventional superhero story. Allies will be recruited (auxiliary X-Men players Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a true believer and a sneering teenager, respectively), comic relief applied (T.J. Miller), and battles engaged, which will lay waste to property and extras with tremendous outlays of CGI. No end of the world stuff here, which is a little refreshing in the increasingly epic showdowns in bigger and bigger movies. It doesn’t reinvent the genre but it has fun with it, delivering the spectacle that fans appreciate while winking at them, as if we are all in on the joke. And it turns out we are. Deadpool came in at under $60 million, a bargain in the age of superhero bloat, and may outgrossBatman v Superman, which came in at more than four times the budget and even more in worldwide promotion. Not too bad for a hero unknown outside of die-hard comic book collectors, a first time director (Tim Miller came out of music videos and commercials), the star of one of the biggest comic book movie flops in the rocky history of the genre, and an R rating for blood, sex, and bad attitude.
Fox knows that this is going to be one of its biggest sellers of the year on disc and they load up the Blu-ray accordingly, beginning with not one but two commentary tracks, one by Ryan Reynolds with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the other by director Tim Miller and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. “From Comics to Screen… to Screen” is a collection of five production featurettes that runs 80 minutes all together and “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” a collection of short, jokey promotional videos running about 24 minutes. There are also and extended scenes, galleries of art and storyboards, and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.
The Witch (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), subtitled “A New England Folktale,” is a primal horror film rooted in fear and superstition, and there is plenty of both in early 17thcentury New England, where a devoted British Puritan family has started a new life. Adding to the general hardship of carving a new colony out of a frontier of deep forests an ocean away from their urban birthplace, this family is banished from the protected village. The religious devotion of pious father William (Ralph Ineson) is so absolute that he challenges the elders and refuses to repent. The irony that this sect left England to escape religious persecution is lost on them all, but then it’s not really what the film is about.
“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” William proclaims as they march away from the last outpost of European civilization in their world. He is pious, yes, but he’s also devoted to his family, protective and even loving in his emotionally restrained way, and he creates a home at the edge of a forest that seems to grow darker and more ominous with each calamity. The crops don’t just fail, they turn black as if cursed. The adorable goats turn aggressive and their bleets and baas begin to sound ominous. And an infant disappears in an innocent game of peekaboo played by apple-cheeked Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter. It’s simply gone with no natural explanation, at least not as experienced through their perspective. The isolation takes its toll on the homesick mother (Kate Dickie), who becomes increasingly drawn and disconnected as she pines for her English life, and failing crops and dying livestock send Father and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) deeper and deeper into the forest for food. It turns a tough, trying existence into the trials of Job as reimagined as a horror movie.
Thomasin is coming of age, as they say, becoming a young woman and given more family responsibility without accompanying respect. Sexuality is very much a presence here, though it is never talked about or acted upon, which makes even thinking about it something shameful to be repressed. Clearly these kids won’t be getting the sex talk.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers drew upon journals and other records of the era for his screenplay, which gives the archaic language a quality both alien and organic, and painstaking recreates the texture of their world, from the heavy, rough clothing to the Spartan home. He shoots with natural light, which makes the shadowy interiors of the rough-hewn cabin of a home gloomy even in daylight and reduced to pools of visibility at night with only candles and lamps to light the rooms. Set against that realism are visions of a forest witch preying upon the vulnerable family (real or simply the nightmares of a family clutching for explanations?) and the creepy games of the young children, who taunt Thomason with nursery rhyme curses and name the goat Black William and proclaim it a demon. In a world where the devil is every bit as real as God, it gets under the skin of the characters. And the audience too.
The horrors are very real, just not necessarily literal, and the film suffered a backlash from a contingency of horror fans reacting to rave reviews with complaints that it wasn’t scary. And if you’re looking for more traditional shocks or scares, this isn’t going to deliver. This is more ambiguous and all the more compelling for it. It’s not easily dismissed after the credits roll. It’s dark and spooky and suggestive and at times genuinely terrifying, and it leaves you wondering just how much belief guides our perceptions.
Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Robert Eggers, the eight-minute featurette “The Witch: A Primal Folktale, and a panel Q&A on the Salem Witch trials featuring Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy. The Blu-ray also features a bonus Ultraviolent Digital HD copy of the film. The Witch [DVD + Digital] The Witch [Blu-ray + Digital HD]
Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.
In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.
Writers and critics have likened the experience of watching movies to dreaming with your eyes open for almost as long as moving images have been projected in front of audiences in dark rooms. But in reality the dreams that movies show are more like the stories we tell ourselves or the fantasies we imagine in our waking lives. When filmmakers attempt to actually recreate the nocturnal odysseys churned up from anxieties and obsessions and the residual thoughts and images scattered through our unconscious minds, they are more like expressionist theater pieces or symbol-laden action paintings. Think of Spellbound, with its Dali-designed sets and loaded Freudian symbolism representing the unprocessed issues of our troubled hero. These films satisfy our idea of “dream” or “nightmare” but don’t actually capture the experience or texture of those twilight journeys which seem to make sense in the moment as they slip from one idea to another but confound us as we try to piece them together when we awaken. If movies are dreams, they have been tamed and rewritten to fit the demands of narrative storytelling.
That’s one reason why I love David Lynch’s waking nightmare Eraserhead and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s haunted-house fantasia House (a.k.a. Hausu). They recreate dream logic in ways that almost no other films do. Is it coincidence that both films first saw the light of a theater screen in 1977? Creative serendipity or primeval synchronicity? Lynch might appreciate the idea of some sort of Jungian breakthrough in such different cultures. They are, after all, the feature debuts of two filmmakers who learned to express themselves cinematically in the world of experimental film. The similarities end there, however. Each of these films spins its own unique dream in its own crazily weird way.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak(Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.
As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.
Though it draws inspiration from Rebecca, Notorious, and Jane Eyre, the sensibility is pure Del Toro. Not the American action movie maker but the creator of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Spanish horror films of dark fantasy where the supernatural and the otherwordly are beautiful and horrible and terrifying but largely benign. Ghosts are not malevolent monsters or vindictive demons but tormented, tortured beings lost in grief that keeps them stuck on earth, pinned like an insect to the location of their death. It is humans who bring evil into the world
This is old school gothic melodrama with modern movie magic. It’s not subtle, and that’s the point. It is grand and glorious and emotionally outsized, elegantly and delicately florid and Gothic. The ghosts are corpses of blood-red bone and rotted flesh with the markers of their past human lives evaporating around them like gossamer silk dissolving in the air. It didn’t find favor with audiences weaned on more malevolent horrors but I loved it, from its creeping, old-world pace to its deliciously realized metaphors to its steadfast belief in the power of the love to transform the most wretched soul.
Beautifully mastered on DVD and Blu-ray, which preserve the intricate textures and vivid, defining colors of the film, with commentary by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (whose pride in his work shows through), the featurettes “Beware of Crimson Peak” (a seven-minute guided tour through the manor) and “The Light and Dark of Crimson Peak” (about the set designs and color schemes), and five deleted scenes.
The Blu-ray also includes the four-part “I Remember Crimson Peak,” which looks at four key locations with short featurettes of about five minutes apiece, plus “A Primer on Gothic Romance,” “Hand Tailored Gothic” (on the film’s costumes), “A Living Thing” (the longest of the featurettes, examining the creation of the mansion), and “Crimson Phantoms” (on creating the ghosts), plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.
Also on Cable and Video On Demand from Amazon Video and other VOD services.
Also new and notable:
Spectre (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the 24th James Bond film and the fourth starring Daniel Craig, continues to explore the origins of 007 and his connection to a supervillain nemesis (played by Christoph Waltz) whose “secret” identity should be obvious to any fan of the series. The opening scene, set in Mexico City in the midst of the Day of the Dead celebrations, is one of the best in the series. But do we really need to humanize Bond? On Blu-ray and DVD with the usual collection of supplements.
99 Homes (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), Ramin Bahrani’s drama set in the ruthless culture of mortgage repossessions in the wake of the financial meltdown, has earned plenty of accolades for star Michael Shannon, the devil making a killing on evicting delinquent homeowners who gives one victim (Andrew Garfield) a chance to keep his home by becoming his hatchet man. Shannon won awards from the L.A. and San Francisco film critics and earned numerous nominations pretty much everyone but the Academy Awards. The Blu-ray edition is, at this point, available exclusively from Best Buy. Features filmmaker commentary and a deleted scene.
Paulette (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is a French film of genre you probably didn’t see coming: a senior citizen dope comedy, with Bernadette Lafont as a retiree who starts selling cannabis to supplement her pension. In French with English subtitles, with deleted scenes.
Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.
These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).
It could be the darker, bleaker answer to Robert Altman’s California Split, or a card-playing variation on The Color of Money without the calculation or mentorship of a veteran gambler running the show. Filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack for finding the patter of dialogue, rhythms of body language, and the expressiveness of silences between the words that communicate what the words can’t, and they offer a great tour of the back hand of the American dream, folks spending their time and money making bets in hopes of making their fortune, but really just hooked on the games and playing until the money is gone.
Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind” plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD).
American Ultra (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reworks The Bourne Identity as a stoner comedy with killer punchline. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a sweet, underachieving stoner prone to panic attacks. He’s getting by as a convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town with a supportive girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is almost impossibly understanding when it comes to his crippling psychological handicaps, and trying to find the right moment to propose—he can’t believe that she’s still sticking with him and doesn’t want to lose the best thing in his life. And then he’s attacked by two thugs in a parking lot and kills one of them with a plastic spoon.
Clearly we’re in the realm of bloody black comedy, where extreme violence is played for tongue-in-cheek humor (except when it isn’t) and our resourceful sleeper assassin has an inventive ingenuity when it comes to turning random objects into deadly weapons. Mike is the sole survivor of a modern super soldier experiment and some snotty CIA middle-management guy (Topher Grace) with a little too much power decides that Mike, whose memories (but not his killer instincts) have been wiped, is a liability and a threat to his own clockwork killer program, which he puts into the field after another agent (Connie Britton) activates him in hopes of saving his life. The collateral damage is comparable to that of a category 3 hurricane.
Smart-mouthed one-liners and creative killing aside, there’s nothing particularly clever in this take on the spy movie trope, but it does have momentum, a modicum of flair, and some flashy effects that, if not particularly effective, at least energize the project. Still, it’s the terrific, lived-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who also starred together in the superb Adventureland) that sustains the enterprise and they are up for anything the film throws at them. The cascade of cruelly creative carnage gets a little numbing after a while and the filmmakers—director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis—aren’t committed enough to believe their own cynicism, but Eisenberg and Stewart make this one true romance I believe in.
Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD). Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On-Demand.
Goodnight Mommy (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an unsettling horror film built on scars (physical and psychological) that upset the connection between a mother (Susanne Wuest) and her sons, adolescent twins named Lukas and Elias played by real-life twin brothers Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz. That fraternal connection is apparent in every scene, not just affection but the easy physical and emotional relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the void between them and their mother, who returns home from the hospital with her head covered in bandages from unspecified surgery.
Mom returns a changed woman, or so we gather from the brothers, who find her cold, aloof, demanding in a way she never was before. She locks them in their room like a fairytale wicked stepmother and even refuses to make dinner for Lukas, the quiet one who drives the suspicion that this woman is an imposter. Yet every time the suspicion tips to conspiracy or possession, filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz tilt the scales in the other direction, offering a glimpse into mom’s troubles. She’s recently separated from her husband and this hospitalization (what is it? Cosmetic surgery, or something more serious?) only adds to her trauma, while the boys get lost deeper into their own private world.
There’s an element of unreality to the situation—why have the boys been left alone while mom was in the hospital, and if she needs such isolation and rest for recovery, why no nurse for her or nanny to watch over the kids, or at least a friend to drop over for comfort or a helping hand—but that isolation is also essential to the anxious atmosphere. Apart from a delivery man with a cache of frozen food and a couple of shuffling Red Cross volunteers seeking donations, they are cut off from the outside world and the filmmakers make the house increasingly alien and eerie. The psychological turns physical, all the more terrifying because it is so direct and intimate, a chamber drama of suspicion and desperation built on fear. Where is mama indeed.
On Blu-ray and DVD, in German with English subtitles, with the featurette “A Conversation with Filmmakers.” Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On Demand.
Larry Fessenden isn’t the most well-known of indie-horror filmmakers but he should be. As a writer / director, he’s taken the classic horror genres and turned them inside out, and he’s produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle. He’s been a cheerleader, in his own words, for other independent filmmakers with a passion for horror, and his encouragement has made the genre much richer in the past couple of decades.
Scream Factory, the horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, collects Fessenden’s first four directorial features and releases them on Blu-ray for the first time in The Larry Fessenden Collection (Scream Factory, Blu-ray). All four films are all newly mastered in HD transfers approved by the director and presented in separate discs with new and archival supplements.
No Telling (1991), Fessenden’s first feature as a director, takes on Frankenstein through the story of a research scientist who starts poaching animals from the nearby forest to experiment on while ostensibly on a summer vacation with his wife. Meanwhile a proponent of organic farming tries to get the local farmers to give up pesticides for the good of the land. It’s eco-horror in the modern age. The disc includes new commentary by Fessenden, a featurette, the short film White Trash (1997), and deleted scenes.
Fessenden’s breakthrough film was Habit (1997), in which he also starred as an alcoholic confronted with evidence that his new, insatiable lover is a bloodsucker: Is she a vampire or is he delusional? While the question remains in the air the film is compelling (if overlong), a neat little study in urban alienation. Shaggy and shabby with his broken tooth smile, Fessenden is oddly a charming lead as a pathetic drunk who is no rush to change his life, making him the perfect victim. He again provides a new commentary track and the disc includes a making of featurette, the original short film version of Habit (1982), his short film N is for Nexus from The ABCs of Death 2, and two music videos.
“Just because people don’t believe in them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there” says an Indian mystic in Wendigo (2002), Fessenden’s thoughtful attempt to pull myth and legend into the real world through the eyes of a young boy. A little murky and overly obsessed with righteous vengeance, it’s also moving and mysterious, with solid performances by Jake Weber (as the dad) and Erik Per Sullivan (Malcolm in the Middle) as the wide-eyed boy whose belief just may bring the beast to life. This one has two new commentary tracks—one by Fessenden, the other by actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos—plus the half-hour featurette “Searching For the Wendigo,” an archival interview with Fessenden, and the short film Santa Claws (2008).
The Last Winter (2007), an eco-twist on the ghost story set in the isolation of an Arctic oil company outpost, is Fessenden’s most accomplished and evocative film to date. The atmosphere evokes John Carpenter’s The Thing, a team surrounded by a frozen desert where storms whip up out of nowhere and something seemingly alien is out there trying to get to them. “The corpses of animals and plants from millions of years ago,” is how environmental scientist James LeGros describes oil. He may also have pegged the source of the angry spirits of the Earth rising to stop the destruction.
Ron Perlman is excellent as the company man who is both invested in the culture of oil and dedicated to protecting all the people on his team as they come under assault or simply drift into madness. It’s Fessenden’s biggest and most visually evocative production and the marriage of environmentalist and animist themes that makes for a resonant – and still timely – horror film. Connie Britton, Zach Gilford and Kevin Corrigan co-star.
The commentary by Fessenden and the feature-length “The Making of The Last Winter,” a rather impressionistic survey of the production, are carried over from the earlier DVD release. This release also includes archival footage, an interview with journalist Adam Nayman, and promo films that Fessenden made for Stake Land, which he produced.
Fessenden contributes new introductions to many of the supplements on all four discs, there are “sizzle reels” from Glass Eye, and the set is accompanied by a booklet with liner notes, stills, storyboards, and sketches.
Special Effects Collection (Warner, Blu-ray), a generic title for a pretty impressive set, presents the Blu-ray debuts of four vintage giant monster movies: Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Them!
Son of Kong (1933), the sequel to the original King Kong, was rushed into production to cash in on Kong-mania. Made by the same team (director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper, stop motion effects by Willis O’Brien) but on a much smaller scale, it takes showman Robert Armstrong back to Kong Island in search of treasure, where he finds Kong’s offspring, a sweet-tempered white ape. It has none of the sweep and grandeur of the original, but as a miniature it has undeniable charms, due largely to the work of O’Brien. He makes Junior a delightful, playful character and creates even more inventive prehistoric creatures for the heroes to battle. Helen Mack takes damsel in distress duties this time around. It’s a fine restoration by Warner of a film that was not well preserved by RKO and there are no supplements apart from a trailer.
Willis O’Brien won finally won his much deserved Oscar for Mighty Joe Young (1949), creating yet another ape, this one the humongous playmate of a young woman Terry Moore who was raised in Africa. Robert Armstrong is once again a showman entrepreneur who brings the ape to civilization (as a nightclub attraction this time) with disastrous consequences, but this time he pitches in with his right-hand man (Ben Johnson) to rescue the ape from his concrete prison and get him back to the jungle. Joe is a marvelous creation and the climax, where he risks his own safety to rescue children trapped in an orphanage fire, is a magnificent set piece that is as touching as it is thrilling. Ernest B. Schoedsack directs and Cooper produces with partner John Ford.
This disc, like all in the set, carries over the extras from the earlier DVD release. This has commentary by stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, special effects veteran Kan Ralston, and actress Terry Moore, the featurettes “Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young” and “A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers” (contemporary special effects artists inspired by Harryhausen who kept the art of physical effects alive in their films), and the trailer
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is not only one of the essentials of the giant monster on the rampage genre of the nuclear 1950s, it’s perhaps the only one of the decade that isn’t actually an atomic mutation. This one is a slumbering prehistoric giant (a Rhedosauras to be specific) awakened from its icy suspended animation by nuclear tests. Apparently cranky about its wake-up call, it stumbles through New York and lays waste to Coney Island before meeting its inevitable end. The first solo creature feature work by the legendary Ray Harryhausen (he was an assistant on Mighty Joe Young) highlights this clunky but endearing piece of B-movie pulp, directed by Eugene Lourie (formerly the production designer for Jean Renoir – what a transition!). The script was “inspired” by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” and familiar genre stalwarts Kenneth Tobey and Lee Van Cleef co-star. The film was an inspiration for Japan’s Godzilla.
It includes the two featurettes originally produced for the DVD release, “The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the Beast” with Ray Harryhausen and “Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship,” which presents Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury in conversation from 2003, when they were interviewed for the film’s 50th Anniversary. Also includes Harryhausen on “Armatures” and the trailer.
Them! (1954) is arguably the most famous giant insect movie of the classic era and certainly the most serious of the 1950s atomic creature features. Ants the size of tanks swarm the desert and it takes an alliance of cops (James Whitmore), scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), the armed forces (Onslow Stevens), and the FBI (James Arness) to beat back the hungry hordes. This inspired dozens of similar giant insect and atomic mutation films, but most of the imitators were cheap knock-offs. This one is intelligently scripted, with adult characters and at least a modicum of research into ant sociology, a budget to match its ambition, and a director (Gordon Douglas) game enough to really stoke up the drama. And in contrast to the three previous films in the set, these ants aren’t miniatures but full-sized constructs created via puppetry, allowing the actors to interact directly with them. It’s no more or less convincing than the beautiful work of O’Brien and Harryhausen, simply different, and it gives the ants an indelible presence on the screen.
This is the restoration that has the home video boards abuzz. The original DVD, released over a decade ago, was presented in 1.33:1 Academy Ratio, the same format most people who originally saw it on TV in the pre-flat screen era are familiar with. But it was made during the transition to widescreen and was, according to documents of the era, produced to be shown in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio (protected for both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1). This is presented in 1.77:1, with the top and bottom masked off and slightly more information on the sides. It took me some getting used to but it always looked well-framed, and for a film with scenes in tunnels and giant honeycombed hives, appropriately claustrophobic in those sequences. Some reviewers claim that the image is stretched compared to the old DVD, but it’s more likely that the old DVD was a little squeezed. If you look at the circles in the film, they are not stretched but round. The other issue is that this HD master looks softer than the DVD edition in direct comparison, which is true, but that may be a matter of digital sharpening that was more common in the early days of DVD restorations. Today the studios are much more conscious to be accurate to both the source material and to the original presentation and there is less artificial sweetening. All in all, I give the nod to the Blu-ray, which presents a more accurate edition of the original film.
Also features “Ants,” which is a three-minute collection of outtakes showing the ant puppets in shots that didn’t pass muster, and the trailer.
Army of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), Sam Raimi’s campy sequel to Evil Dead 2, is more of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen than a horror film. Bruce Campbell’s Ash lands in some medieval land with a chainsaw strapped on one hand, a shotgun in the other (“This is my boomstick!”), and a ’73 Oldmobile for a chariot, and he organizes the peasants to battle with the Deadites: an army of animated skeletons that could have walked out of a Harryhausen Sinbad movie (albeit one with an absurdist sensibility). Sure the mix of Three Stooges slapstick, anachronistic glibness (“Gimme some sugar, baby!” he croaks out to Dark Ages beauty Embeth Davidtz), and cult film homages in a medieval adventure wears a little thin, but it’s always clever and the shaggy special effects are a funky treat for all their inconsistencies. Note that Bridget Fonda has a cameo, recreating scenes from Evil Dead 2 as Ash’s girlfriend, in the opening sequence with Ash as an S-Mart clerk relating his adventures to his fellow employees. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.
This is one of those cult films that gets a new edition every few years. This is not the first time on Blu-ray but it is the first Blu-ray special edition and Shout! Factory packs this three-disc set with goodies, including four different cuts of the film: the original theatrical version (81 minutes), which is an improvement over Universal’s earlier bare-bones Blu-ray; the longer director’s cut (96 min) which features Raimi’s original ending; the international cut (88 min), which is from a new 4K scan from the interpositive; and the 90-minute TV cut, which is presented in the lo-fi glory of standard definition fullscreen 1.33:1.
New to this edition is the feature-length documentary “Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness” featuring Bruce Campbell and more than 20 members of the cast and crew but not Raimi, who apparently is now a little too big for this kind of thing. Raimi is, however, in the terrific commentary track to the Director’s Cut that he recorded years ago with Campbell and co-writer Ivan Raimi, a real party track that is a lot of fun. Everything else is vintage: 50 minutes of behind the scenes footage from KNB Effects, the featurettes “Creating the Deadites” and “The Men Behind the Army,” plus deleted scenes, additional behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, galleries of stills, TV spots and trailers. The only significant vintage supplement that’s missing, as far as I can tell, is the storyboard video track.
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.
Horror Classics: 4 Chilling Movies from Hammer Films(Warner, Blu-ray) presents the respective Blu-ray debuts of four films from Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic monster movies in gothic style and lurid color (to match the lurid atmosphere of sex and death).
The Mummy (1959) is the third of Hammer’s classic horror revivals and the fourth Hammer film to pair up its two marquee stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing stars as archeologist John Banning, whose dig for a lost tomb results in untold treasures but leaves his father a mumbling madman and marks the rest of the company for death. Lee is Kharis, a former high priest turned gauze-wrapped guardian of the tomb, a veritable Golem sent on a mission of vengeance by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), a disciple of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris. “I’ve spent the better part of my life among the dead, but I’ve never worked in a place with such an aura of menace. There’s something evil in there.”
The scenes at the archeological dig and the flashbacks to the ancient burial are stagebound and frankly cheap looking, but Terence Fisher—Hammer’s top director—is back in familiar territory when the action relocates to the misty swamps and Victorian mansions of rural England. The towering, 6’3” Lee makes the most terrifying mummy to date. He covers ground in giant strides, smashes his way into rooms with heavy Frankenstein-like swipes of his arm, and takes shotgun blasts with barely a twitch, yet melts from rage to calm at the sight of Banning’s wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), a dead ringer for his dead Queen. He’s haunted soul, rampaging juggernaut, and a hugely powerful monster all in one. In the classic Hammer tradition there’s a sadistic twist to the flashback when Lee’s transgressive priest has tongue removed. It’s not as gory as it sounds, but it still carries a shivering eeriness about it. Hammer’s Mummy sequels, like Universal’s before it, are a spotty lot but the original is quite good.
Terence Fisher also directs Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1970), the fifth entry in Hammer’s “Frankenstein” series, and Cushing delivers his most cold-blooded portrayal of the mad Baron yet. Abandoning his latest experiment after a drunk stumbles into his secret lab (upsetting a severed head) he hurriedly finds new lodgings with a sweet young thing (Hammer glamour babe Veronica Carlson) whose boyfriend (Simon Ward, in his film debut) works in the local sanitarium. Frankenstein blackmails the lovers into complicity with his latest experiment, resorts to kidnapping and murder for his subjects, turns accomplice Ward into a killer, and even rapes his Carlson in a coldly brutal scene. It continues Hammer’s evolution of Cushing’s Baron into a truly mad scientist, as in utterly insane and cruelly amoral, destroying the lives of all around him in his search for scientific knowledge out of sheer hubris.
The goriest film of the series kicks off with a flamboyant beheading with a scythe (seen only as a spray of blood across a window) and is full of bloody brain surgery, conveniently offscreen but vividly suggested in the slurping sound effects of surgical saws and drills and the gallons of blood left in their wake. Freddie Jones is heartbreaking as Frankenstein’s latest creature, a once insane scientist who awakens to find himself cured but trapped in a grotesque alien body. When he attempts to communicate with his wife, half hiding in a dark corner while she peers around and sees only a monster, Fisher offers the most affecting moment of pathos on the entire series. It helps make this one of the best films in the series and one of the unsung Hammer classics.
Christopher Lee stars as the malevolent Count in both Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). The former, directed by Freddie Francis, picks up where Dracula: Prince Of Darkness left off, revived from an icy grave by the blood of a priest and pursued by a Monsignor (Rupert Davies). The latter, directed by Peter Sasdy, moves the location to Victorian London where the Count is resurrected by a depraved English Lord (Ralph Bates) and proceeds to revenge himself on the men who killed his servant by seducing their daughters and sending them to murder their own fathers.
All four films, previously available on DVD, have been newly remastered for Blu-ray. The colors are vivid, not to say appropriately lurid, and the images strong and sharp. They are distinctive upgrades from the previous DVD releases, which are well over a decade old. There are no supplements.
All four films also available in separate volumes.
Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD) – “If we engage the enemy, I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot of you.” Neil Marshall ransacks and revitalizes every cliché in the book in this howling good reworking of the werewolf tale.
Borrowing liberally from the “survivors under siege” classics Aliens and Night of the Living Dead, Marshall drops his full moon boogie in the deep misty forests of the Scottish Highlands, pits platoon versus wolf pack, and watches the fur fly. Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd are the career soldiers on a weekend war game turned into a primal bloodbath, Emma Cleasby the backwoods naturalist who knows more than she’s saying, and Liam Cunningham the ruthless Special Forces officer with a conspiratorial streak. “There was only supposed to be one…” Cunningham moans when his troops find him at the otherwise deserted base camp, wounded and dazed and surrounded by spots of blood and bits of human organs. Their retreat is only marginally more successful and before you can say “Lucky you came along on this lonely dirt road in the nick of time,” they hitch a ride and hole up in the only house for miles around.
Where so many horror movies coast on such coincidences, Marshall works them into the conspiratorial premise of the piece and dangles clues for observant viewers between the blasts of black humor (Wells’ tug of war with a playful dog over the intestines spilling out of his gut), bloody horror, and action heroics. His muscular attack and display of men-under-fire sacrifice is reminiscent of James Cameron, while the shards of cold illumination that backlight the swirling fog, catch the faces of combatants, and silhouette the towering beasts (apparently the full moon had some help) recall Ridley Scott. Give credit to Marshall for borrowing from the best. Dog Soldiers doesn’t transcend genre, it embraces it, energizes it, and takes big bloody chomp out of it.
Director Neil Marshall posted a note about the restoration on the Scream Factory Facebook page, noting that the original negative is apparently lost and the disc was mastered from existing prints. “Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm.” So yes, this is grainy and doesn’t have the detail or clarity of master harvested from the original negative, but it’s a fine edition that the director stands behind.
This edition features both Blu-ray and DVD copies with new supplements, including commentary by Neil Marshall, the hour-long documentary “Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers” with new interviews with Marshall, many of his collaborators, and the film’s stars, and a 13-minute featurette on the production design, plus Marshall’s 1999 short film Combat and a couple of photo galleries. The cover features reversible art.