#Noirvember Blu-ray: The rural noir of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ and ‘Road House’

ondangerousgroundOn Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.

Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.

It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.

Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in 'On Dangerous Ground'
Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’

On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?

This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”

road-house-48Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.

Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.

Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in 'Road House'
Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in ‘Road House’

#Noirvember Blu-ray: The docu-noir of ‘Boomerang’ and ‘The House on 92nd Street’

house92The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and The Naked City (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.

It makes it Blu-ray debut in an edition featuring commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller (carried over from the 2005 DVD) and an animated still gallery.

boomerangBoomerang (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) from 1947 is one of those films that picked up the semi-documentary strain and improved upon the original. It’s also produced by de Rochement and features the disembodied voice of narrator Reed Hadley insisting that the events portrayed here occurred in a small Connecticut town “but it could have happened anywhere,” and it is directed by Elia Kazan, who brings a focus on the performances and the social culture of the town. That voice of authority is ostensibly there to assure us that the public servants have everything in hand but the film, which turns from everytown American portrait to crime thriller with the point-black murder of a beloved priest, reveals otherwise.

The story follows the public pressure on the police after the shocking murder (and the scene is shocking and startling without ever showing the deed) and the political pressure on the State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) to bring a speedy indictment to their only suspect, a drifter played by Arthur Kennedy. His character is another of the returning veterans who came home after serving his country and found nothing waiting for him but dead end jobs and a grinding existence, and his fumbling response to the questions basically damns him in the eyes of the police, who have picked him up on circumstantial evidence. Lee J. Cobb is the solid cop swayed by the preponderance of evidence over his gut feeling. He thinks something isn’t right but shrugs it off after Kennedy signs the confession, exhausted and emotionally depleted after hours of interrogation. There been no beating, but the constant verbal and emotional assault wears him down. In one of the film’s most touching moments, he carries the exhausted suspect after a confession is signed, a moment of pure kindness. Jane Wyman is second billed but has little screen time and even less narrative importance as Andrews’ wife.

Like other films in the movement, it eases the chiaroscuro lighting of films like I Wake Up Screaming for more of a naturalistic look, and focuses on procedure and details over violence and action. This one spends most of the final act in the courtroom, and even there it defies expectation with a very measured effort by State’s Attorney Harvey as he lays out the issues in the case against the defendant, yet Kazan avoids the usual theatrics as Andrews, who loosens up a little under Kazan’s direction, methodically works his way through his case with a modesty rare even in today’s spate of TV legal dramas. It’s more film gray than noir, with the undercurrent of political pragmatism and shady business dealings behind the pose of jurisprudence. The “reform party” swept in with a promise of, well, reform, but under the hammerblows of newspaper headlines turning the case into the 1940 equivalent of clickbait, they don’t seem all that reformed. Not that the fourth estate comes off much better.

“This case was never solved,” informs our voice of authority, but we still get the Production Code-mandated ending suggesting that the guilty man—or at least, the man we assume to be guilty, given the circumstantial evidence slipped conspicuously into the drama—receives punishment. It’s the kind of assurance that studios liked to peg on the end of crime dramas and thrillers but it hardly sweeps away the portrait of outright corruption and insidious political machinations that Kazan reveals along the away.

Kino’s disc brings out both the gray scale and the noir night scenes beautifully, with brief mottling at a couple of points but otherwise clean and crisp. Kino offers a newly recorded commentary track by Noir City Sentinel contributor Imogen Sara Smith (it’s her first commentary and she makes a fine and confident debut with an informative talk), plus commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini carried over from the 2006 DVD release, a terrific balance of historical backstory and informed observation, all in the easy-going, conversational give-and-take of longtime collaborators. Note that the back cover of the slipsleeve art includes a factually incorrect plot description (it describes two suspects and the efforts of the State Attorney “to prove one suspect’s innocence and the other’s guilt,” but there is no second suspect in the film) and a still from Whirlpool featuring actors Richard Conte and Charles Bickford. This is all cosmetics, mind you. I just want you to know that yes, I’m aware of the errors.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Crouching Tiger’ revisited, ‘Kamikaze’ Fassbinder, South Korean ‘Wailing,’ and more

kamikaze89Kamikaze ’89 (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder takes a rare onscreen lead in what would be his last screen appearance in Wolfgang Kremm’s 1982 new wave science fiction cop drama. Based on a satirical science fiction novel by Swedish crime writer Per Wahlöö, it’s a cyberpunk murder mystery in a totalitarian near future, where news and entertainment is controlled by a single entity called the Combine, a corporate monopoly that narcotizes the population with mind-numbing reality TV and upbeat news reports of sunny weather. Lt. Jansen (Fassbinder) is assigned to investigate a bomb threat at the headquarters of the Combine, which is run by a man known as Blue Panther, and given 72 hours to wrap the case (which is classified as a state secret) by his Chief, who is constantly under medical treatment.

This is a cartoon of a totalitarian culture where vegetables are forbidden and the police salute one another with a thumbs up and a smile and the film is filled with comic books both real and fictional (the Blue Panther is the star of his own series, where his nemesis Kyrsnopompas has become an icon of revolution) to hammer the message home. The mystery is silly and confusing but the film is entertaining, with Fassbinder dressed in a leopard-print suit and playing racketball in a police disco in his off hours. You can see the ravages of drugs and alcohol on Fassbinder, who is pale and pudgy and often out of breath in his scenes. He was dead by the time the film was released. This is more curiosity than classic but it is goofy fun and it features Fassbinder collaborators on screen (actors Günther Kaufmann and Brigitte Mira) and behind the camera (cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger) and a score by Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese.

It debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in the US with commentary by producer Regina Ziegler and the documentaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year (1982) and Wolf At the Door (2015) directed by Wolf Gremm, plus a booklet with essays by Nick Pinkerton and Samuel B. Prime.

crouchingtiger4kCrouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Sony, Blu-ray, 4K UHD) – Ang Lee transformed his love of “wuxia pian” (China’s epic adventures of martial arts, chivalry, and melodrama of the past age) into a worldwide smash by creating, in his own words, “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” As much about the tragedy of repressed love and the rebellion of a feisty young princess (Zhang Ziyi) against an arranged marriage as a hot-blooded action film, it bubbles with heart, soul, and sheer poetry in motion. Michele Yeoh kicks up a storm while Chow Yun-Fat relies on poise, confidence, and minimalist movements to make himself the calm master in the center of frenzied fights. The film soars—literally—with high flying action scenes that border on magic, but it’s the romantic abandon and delirious imagery that gives the melodrama it universal appeal. Winner of four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography.

It’s been newly remastered from a 4K master for the 4K UHD release, and features a collection of new and archival supplements. New to this edition is the three-part “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger – A Retrospective” featuring interviews with director Ang Lee, screenwriter/producer James Schamus, and film editor Tim Squyres, all conducted by Tasha R. Robinson (runs about 80 minutes all together), and the vintage featurette “The Making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” plus six never-before-seen deleted scenes, two music videos, and a new introduction by director Ang Lee.

Carried over from previous releases are two commentary tracks, one with director Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus, the other with cinematographer Peter Pau, an interview with Michelle Yeoh, and a gallery of stills. The filmmaker commentary is both entertaining and informative. Schamus cracks jokes but is genuinely sensitive to the film; he quips: “And now the exposition: Why are you doing this? I’m repressed and I’m in an Ang Lee movie,” during a conversation between the two female leads, but turns around to praise Michelle Yeoh’s performance as she holds the scene in close-up. Lee is no slouch in the humor department himself, but he’s more concerned with the cultural background, the themes of masters and disciples, and the physical ordeal of creating the film and the effects, especially the stunning martial arts sequences but also the amazing vistas and beautiful locations.

wailingThe Wailing (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD), a South Korean thriller that takes a dark turn into supernatural horror, is the third feature from Na Hong-jin, director of The Yellow Seaand The Chaser, two of the more sophisticated thrillers to come out South Korean cinema. He does a nice job of putting his horror in the material world of modern life with Kwak Do-won as a somewhat dim underachiever cop who is way over his head investigating a double homicide in his little town. Kwak isn’t too bright but he’s a doting father to his smart little girl and there’s still a little spark in his marriage, even if they have to sneak off like a teenager to the backseat of their car to have a little private time. He’s gobsmacked by the bloody crime scene, unnerved by the sight of a silent woman who appears at each crime scene like a demonic spirit, and unsettled by the enigmatic Japanese traveler living in the hills (Jun Kunimura). They are all clearly interconnected and as the body count increases and an inexplicable plague of untreatable illnesses build he puts his attention to the Japanese man with a hidden shrine of incriminating photos. Is he a shaman or a villain, and is this a serial killer spree or demonic possession?

This is dark and disturbing and surprisingly long—over 2 ½ hours—and directed with a slow build that churns up the tension as it shifts suspicion around. Na splashes the crime scenes with blood and gore and suggestions of unimaginable violence perpetrated on the victims, and he captures weird scenes of unnerving behavior that could be evidence of dark forces at work or simply fevered imaginations at work. But it’s when Kwak’s pre-teen daughter develops a rash and starts spouting filthy language with a ferocious rage that comes and goes like a fever (recalling nothing less than The Exorcist) that the horror really hits home for Kwak, who tosses aside police procedure and overcomes his innate cowardice to save his daughter. That’s not entirely reassuring, mind you. Where American horrors tend to provide us with earnest cops and wise religious figures, this film (like an earlier, non-horror South Korean thriller, Memories of Murder) offers no such comforting protagonists or confident insights to the supernatural origins of the inexplicable events. And when things get really weird and twisted in the third act, the brakes are off on this ride.

On Blu-ray and DVD. In Korean with English subtitles, with two featurettes and the original trailer.

phantomtheatrePhantom of the Theatre (Well Go, DVD) – The Phantom of the Opera looms large in this Hong Kong haunted theater / romantic melodrama set in 1930s Shanghai, where a grand show palace is reopened for the first time since a troupe of acrobats died in a fire 13 years before. An ambitious filmmaker (Yo Yang) wants to shoot his debut feature, a supernatural romance, in the theater. A series of mishaps plagues the crew and scares the leading man off, prompting the director to step in opposite the lovely ingénue (Ruby Lin), who remains through the disasters. There’s a mysterious, scarred figure scurrying behind the scenes, characters burst into flame and appear to burn from the inside out (the director’s girlfriend is, coincidentally, the police pathologist), and flashbacks reveal that most of the players in this modern drama have direct ties to the fatal fire years before.

The film tries to have it both ways, delivering supernatural spectacle and then explaining it away with pseudo-science that doesn’t quite hold up, and turns into a revenge film and a murder mystery. It’s directed by Raymond Yip (Yip Wai Man), a veteran of popular costume epics and grand action films, and he gives it a lavish, colorful look. The old style melodrama is big and lush and romantic, like the old Hollywood pictures of the 1940s and 1950s with modern special effects. It may seem corny to American audiences but it’s entertaining and visually fun to watch.

On DVD only. In Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

reignassassinsReign of Assassins (Anchor Bay, DVD) is a 2010 costume action drama making its belated American home video largely on the two international names in the Chinese picture: producer John Woo, who has a co-director credit, and star Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonfame. Yeoh is a top assassin for Dark Stone, a criminal organization determined to find the remains of a great martial arts master that is said to give great power to whoever possesses them. The relics are something of a MacGuffin here, an object to set the story in motion as Yeoh takes the treasure and disappears into a new life (thanks to a black arts version of plastic surgery) married to a poor but honest courier (Jung Woo-sung). When she reveals her powers to save her neighbors from a gang of bank robbers, however, the top assassins from Dark Stone arrive to take the bounty on her head. This is a colorful but unremarkable mix of martial chivalry, costume drama, romance, and period martial arts spectacle with swordplay, flying acrobatics, and special effects. Action star Michelle Yeoh is duly enigmatic and Korean star Jung Woo-sung provides the romantic warmth, but it is otherwise routine with little sign of Woo’s action pyrotechnics or his operatic approach to melodrama.

On DVD only. Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

Blu-ray: ‘Private Property’ rediscovered and restored

privatepropertyPrivate Property (Cinelicious, Blu-ray+DVD) – Put this 1960 film in the “Lost and Found” category. The directorial debut by Leslie Stevens, a playwright and screenwriter and protégé of Orson Welles, it’s a neat little sexually-charged psychological thriller set in the sunny California culture of affluence and trophy wives and drifting hitchhikers crossing the stratified social borders.

Corey Allen and Warren Oates are Duke and Boots, the George and Lenny of angry drifters, and Kate Manx is the beautiful trophy wife that Duke spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in a white Corvette. They coerce a travelling salesman to follow that car and trail her to her Hollywood Hills home, taking up residence in a vacant home next door. They ogle her through the second floor window as Anne sunbathes and skinny dips, and then they insinuate themselves into her home. A student of the Method school, Allen plays Duke as an angry young con man who has perfected the sensitive soul act, while Manx, who was Stevens’ wife at the time, is a limited actress who Stevens directs to an effective performance. Oates is the revelation, walking that tightrope between loyalty and suspicion, slowly figuring out Duke’s games but slow to act until practically pushed into action.

Long considered lost until it was restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive and rereleased in 2016, Private Property is not a lost masterpiece but it is a terrific little independently-produced thriller. Constructed around a few locations (including Stevens’ own home for Anne’s gilded prison) and a cast of four central characters and shot in an economical ten days, it is both a handsome production (shot by veteran, Oscar-nominated DP Ted McCord sometime between Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Sound of Music, and camera operator Conrad Hall) and a visually evocative world taut with palpable tension and he orchestrates the quartet nicely. The simmering resentments of class and money and the confusion of sex, desire, and power point this 1960 film forward to the socio-political concerns of late-sixties and early-seventies cinema.

Released on a Blu-ray+DVD combo pack from a 4K restoration with a new interview with still photographer and technical consultant Alexander Singer and a fold-out insert with notes and observations by Don Malcolm.

Private Property [Blu-ray + DVD Combo]

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.

Death Walks at Midnight - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.

Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…

bloodblackBlood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.

Forget the plot, which has something to do with a masked stalker hunting the gorgeous models of a Rome fashion house and a personal diary that becomes the film’s maguffin, and just take in the color and style. The man, dressed in black with a blank white mask that evokes the fashion mannequins of the film, leads his partners, invariably beautiful women impeccably dressed in bright, bold colors, through an often elaborate, usually sadistic, tightly choreographed murder. The plot becomes secondary to spectacle of the dreamy dance of death, choreographed with sadistic precision, delivered in lurid color, spied upon with a restlessly gliding camera. There’s an undeniable edge of misogyny to the whole thing, but the psycho-thriller aspects seem beside the point as the narrative melts into abstract moments of dreamy, disconnected beauty. Cameron Mitchell (who also starred in a pair of Viking movies for Bava) plays the head of the fashion house and, thus, is the prime suspect in the eyes of the obsessive Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner)

Previous DVD releases have all been a little disappointing. Bava was a cinematographer and special effects artist before graduating to director. His films are painstakingly designed and painted on the screen and Blood and Black Lace is one of his most beautiful. You can see it right there in the opening credits, a Gothic fashion shoot bathed in intense, unreal sprays of red and purple and green. Arrow gives the film its American Blu-ray debut in a transfer newly mastered from a 2K restoration from the original camera negative, with both the Italian and English language soundtracks (note that American actor Mitchell’s voice in the English version is one of many dubbed by Paul Frees) and newly translated subtitles for the Italian version.

New to this edition and featured on both Blu-ray and DVD editions is commentary by film historian and Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas and the almost hour-long “Psycho Analysis,” an in-depth documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi among others. There is also an appreciation of the film by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, directors of the giallo tributes Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (10 mins), the visual essay “Gender and Giallo” by Michael Mackenzie (38 mins), a panel discussion on Mario Bava featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival (11 mins), the complete episode of David Del Valle’s television series The Sinister Image featuring his interview Cameron Mitchell (56 mins), and the alternative US opening titles (sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release). Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the neo-giallo short film Yellow by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt. The accompanying lavishly illustrated booklet features new essays by giallo historian Howard Hughes and David Del Valle and a print interview with Joe Dante.

whathavesolongeWhat Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) is celebrated as one of the masterpieces of giallo. It’s also one of the most disturbing entries in the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume. On the one hand, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) comes right out of the krimi-inspired plots of a mysterious masked killer hunting down victims and leaving their rent bodies on display to taunt the cops and terrorize the community, with a side of salacious nudity out of the schoolgirl films of Germany and the swinging cheerleader and student nurse films of the U.S. On the other, it is about a killer targeting high school girls and murdering them with a sexual assault out of the Jack the Ripper school of hateful misogyny. Our prime suspect is also our protagonist, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), an Italian physical education teacher in an exclusive British girl’s school. He’s married to a schoolteacher (Karin Baal, introduced as a chilly, severe figure) and sleeping with a student (Cristina Galbó), though the film takes pains to assure us that she is 18 so it’s okay, wink wink, nudge nudge. The growing suspicions of Enrico send him on his own investigation with his wife at his side and it turns out that their mystery-solving partnership is better than marriage counseling.

Director / co-writer Massimo Dallamano, the cinematographer of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) and director of salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970), stacks up the genre conventions. One character has violent flashes of the murders, something between supernatural premonition and buried traumatic memory (complete with a sickly inventive bit of stylistic ingenuity involving a murder, a nightmare, and a whip-pan transition). There are obligatory shower scenes (complete with a peeping tom more pervy than menacing) next to imagery of Catholic repression and guilt. In one flashback involving an abortion, the scene transforms from shared act of rebellion to grotesque assault, an act of sadism and sexual violation rather than a medical procedure. The filmmakers may have set the film in Britain but the illegal back-alley abortion is purely Italian, as is the Catholic morality.

What Have You Done to Solange? has plot holes big enough to trap the elephant in the room, but it is unusual and surprising and perversely compelling, with a disturbed twist that gives the salacious and sick predations a psychological grounding. This is not violence sexualized but an angry, vicious assault upon the sexuality of the victims, which gives the film a weird, resonant pay-off, and the lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. Solange is exploitation to be sure, but Dallamano doesn’t fetishize or stylize the violence as spectacle. Rather, his film reverberates with a fear of female sexuality and mourning over the loss of innocence. That’s not to say Dallamano transcends the conventions of the genre, but he certainly complicates them.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from the original camera negative and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. It was shot with the actors delivering their lines in English so the dub would better match. Given the international make-up of the cast, the English language version is likely the definitive one here.

New to this edition is commentary by horror historians and critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman, new interviews with actors Karin Baal (13 mins), Fabio Testi (21 mins), and Fulvio Lucisano (11 mins), the half-hour visual essay “Innocence Lost” by Michael Mackenzie, plus a booklet with new essays on the gialloscores of Ennio Morricone by Howard Hughes and the career of actress Camille Keaton by Art Ettinger.

deathwalkstwiceDeath Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli(Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) is a double shot of gialloconnected not by story or character but by genre, style, and creative collaborators. Both films are directed by Luciano Ercoli, written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén (aka 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).

Death Walks in High Heels (1971) 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 (Nieves Navarro), 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 (Simón Andreu), 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’re do well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish the alpha male dominance while living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one. Frank Wolff is the friendliest stalker on the stripper circuit, following Nicole from one club to the next and finally whisking her out of the country to his English seaside villa to escape the killer and the cops. (Key scenes with Paris and London landmarks were shot on location but otherwise Spain and Italy stand in for France and Britain.)

The quirky Inspector Baxter (Carlo Gentili), a sardonic police investigator with a dry wit and a slow-witted assistant (George Rigaud), is right out of the krimi, as are the masked killer (whose faceless appearance is just as much about instilling terror as concealing identity), the gallery of eccentric suspects, and the splashes of gallows humor. And then there’s the voyeurism and the disembodied eyes. The operatic, intense close-ups that Sergio Leone turned into a stylistic trademark of the spaghetti western are transformed by Ercoli into mystery and menace: the eyes of unidentified onlookers, isolated in extreme close-up or framed by the holes of a mask or the lenses of glasses, binoculars, and telescopes. Nicole can’t escape the gaze of lusting men even in hiding and just who is doing the watching is as much a mystery as who is behind the mask.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972) is not actually a sequel but in the proudly opportunistic tradition of Italian genre pictures it recalls an earlier success, in this case the filmmakers’ own. This time around, Navarro is a fashion model named Valentina (a reference to the comic book series by Guido Crepax?) who reluctantly agrees to be the subject of an experimental hallucinogenic drug for an unscrupulous tabloid reporter (Andreu). In the middle of a psychedelic trip she witnesses a gruesome murder in the apartment across the way but apartment is spotless by the time the police check it out the next day, The reporter chalks it up to an acid flashback—there actually was a murder committed in the same apartment months ago and he’s convinced the drug unlocked a memory she buried out of trauma—so Valentina becomes a high fashion Nancy Drew to navigate a world of eccentric informants, colorful suspects, and bohemian allies.

Ercoli pushes his style to more stylistic flamboyance: curious camera angles, unsettling compositions, a sense of Gothic around the edges of the modern world. Valentina’s sometime-lover Stefano (Pietro Martellanza), an artist with a lavish studio, gives Ercoli the opportunity to splash a little abstract color around. He pushes the film through creative set pieces and wild plot twists with a snappy pace, keeping the rollercoaster of suspense and spectacle moving with rapid but smooth momentum. Most refreshingly, Navarro takes the lead in the investigation and in the film. The men are a few beats behind, though no less arrogant for it. She isn’t even obligated to disrobe this time around, which I attribute to a sign of respect and affection from director to actress. The married and lived happily ever until Ercoli’s death in 2015.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the films, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from original camera elements and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. High Heels features commentary by giallo historian Tim Lucas and interviews with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Nieves Navarro from 2012 (24 mins), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi from 2015 (32 mins), and composer Stelvio Cipriani from 2015 (26 mins), and a brief video introduction by Gastaldi. Midnight features commentary by Lucas, a 2015 interview with Ernesto Gastaldi (31 mins), visual essay “Desperately Seeking Susan” by Michael Mackenzie that explores at the collaboration between Ercoli and Nieves (27 mins), and the alternate TV version of the film, which runs four minutes longer and features additional and alternate footage. The alternate version is taken from an inferior video source. The accompanying 60-page booklet features new essays by Danny Shipka, Troy Howarth, and Leonard Jacobs. The box set is limited to 3000 copies.

killerdamesKiller Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia(Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) pair up the only two giallidirected by Miraglia, who learned the ropes of genre filmmaking working his way through the studio system as a script supervisor and assistant director before making his directorial debut in 1967 with the crime thriller Assassination. Miraglia is more indebted to the Gothic tradition in his brief engagement with the giallo and his two features, which are embraced by some critics as minor classics of the genre, are more mystery thriller than horror. They also, like Blood and Black Lace and Death Walks at Midnight, embrace the fashions of the era, which he weaves into the Gothic flashback to create something a little different for the genre.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) opens with the attempted escape from an asylum, and then jumps ahead to his freedom. Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is a handsome widower living in a run-down mansion in the countryside haunted by memories of his dead wife. To deal with the grief he frequents nightclubs and strip joints in the city, looking for red-headed beauties who resemble his late wife, then proceeds to lure into the family dungeon to torture and kill. Yes, all those dreamy, soft-focus reveries of naked romps in the woods turn out to be memories of his wife’s affairs. His release from psychiatric observation was apparently premature but in perhaps the most unexpected twist in the film he shifts from villain to victim. When he marries Gladys (Marina Malfatti), a woman whose wardrobe is defined by dizzying plunging necklines and blouses that surely must be glued to her breasts, mere hours after they meet at Gothic-chic party, the dead Evelyn appears. Whether she’s an actual ghost or an elaborate scheme, there is something decidedly human killing off members of the manor and there is no shortage of suspects—a bitter wheelchair-bound aunt, the brother of the dead wife who slinks around spying on everyone, a devoted cousin who keeps showing up—or victims.

It’s a confused plot—by the time the film ends it’s completely forgotten that he’s an insane serial killer—with details that are a dubious even for the coincidence-laced genre. Seriously, who leaves an open bag of powdered sulfuric acid next to a swimming pool? But it’s also a handsome film with great locations and art direction and a memorable mix of fashions. The walk through the dark, decrepit old manor let slide into ruin that ends up in Alan’s modern, well-life bachelor pad is an effective bit of atmospheric whiplash in a film where the past and present are constantly colliding, and the journey to the family crypt is like a trip back hundreds of years (or at least to an early sixties Italian Gothic horror film).

Red Queen Kills Seven Times - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Red Queen Kills Seven Times – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) refers to an ancient family curse that a kindly grandfather (Rudolf Schündler) tells his constantly battling young granddaughters, who are already on the verge of fulfilling it: every hundred years, a brutal, bullying heir to the manor is killed by her sister and then returns from the grave to kill seven times, the final victim being her murderer. Jump fourteen years ahead and Kitty (Barbara Bouchet), the blond sister, is now a photographer for a Berlin fashion house and the brunette sister is missing (“moved to Canada,” everyone says) when the grandfather dies and the Bavarian family castle is to pass to the girls. In fact, the sister is dead and the curse begins again as members of the family and the fashion house are murdered by a mysterious figure clad in black with a red cape. Like Evelyn before it, the DNA comes from the German krimi, and this one is even set and shot in Germany. Details that appear confusing at first—three of the leading actresses have a startling resemblance, to the point that you might mistake one for another—pay off by the end. The plots is overly confusing (common to the genre) bit it ultimately fits together nicely (not so common). Also note an early role by future genre star Sybil Danning.

Both of Miraglia’s films straddle the old and new. Their sophisticated, fashionable protagonists live modern urban lives yet are constantly drawn back to the family manor, a legacy rooted in family history and tragedy. These are centuries-old mansion and castles where paintings of the dead keep the past around as if haunting the place. His character have inherited the baggage of family history and it weighs heavily on them. It’s a sensibility reminiscent of Corman’s Poe films brought into the modern world and that past struggles with the present for control over our heroes.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the films, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from original camera negatives and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. Evelyn features new commentary by Troy Howarth and interviews with actress Erika Blanc and critic Stephen Thrower, plus archival interviews with Blanc and production designer Lorenzo Baraldi and a brief video introduction by Blanc. Red Queen features new commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman, interviews with actress Sybil Danning and Thrower, an alternate opening, and a brief video introduction by Baraldi, plus archival interviews with Baraldi and actors Marino Masé and Barbara Bouchet and the interview featurette “If I Met Miraglia Today” with Blanc, Baraldi, and Masé. The accompanying 60-page booklet features new essays by James Blackford, Kat Ellinger, Leonard Jacobs, and Rachael Nisbet. The box set is limited to 3000 copies.

edgarblackcatsEdgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) pairs up two Italian films that use Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” as a foundation for bloody horror but otherwise have little in common.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key(1972), directed by Sergio Martino, is the more interesting of the two, and it stars the voluptuous, dark-eyed beauty Edwige Fenech, the sex bomb of giallo, in what was (in the words historian Justin Harries) “Her finest and most atypical role.” Oliveira (Luigi Pistilli) is a once popular novelist now blocked and taking out his frustrations on his poor abused wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg). He carries on flagrant affairs and plays the decadent lord of the manor for the flower children of a local tent camp. Fenech is the writer’s gorgeous young niece Floriana, a sexy free spirit who arrives for a visit and immediately stirs things up when she gets involved with a motocross racer, an affair that riles up the writer. Meanwhile all of Oliveira’s mistresses are systematically and brutally murdered. It’s classic giallo: a mysterious killer stalking beautiful women, interspersed with scenes of sex, sadism, voyeurism, and utterly gratuitous nudity. But it’s built on a narrative architecture that is faithful to the Poe short story—a black cat named Satan, a family treasure, and a conspiracy of terror behind the murders. It’s just filled out with giallo twists and spectacle, the most glorious spectacle being the voluptuous, dark-eyed Fenech.

The Black Cat (1981), directed by Lucio Fulci, throws in elements from other Poe tales. Patrick Magee stars as a psychic who can send his pet cat to kill his enemies and Mimsy Farmer as a photographer and amateur detective who notices the scratches on each victim that the cops missed. It’s a confusing mystery and a muddled film and while it features blood and nudity, it is tame compared Fulci’s infamous gore classics.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room features a new interview with Sergio Martino (34 mins), the retrospective featurette “Unveiling The Vice” featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech, and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (23 mins), the visual essays “Dolls Of Flesh And Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino” by Michael Mackenzie and “The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech” with film historian Justin Harries (30 mins apiece), and a brief interview with Eli Roth. The Black Cat features commentary by filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, the featurette “Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness” with film historian Stephen Thrower (25 mins), a new interview with actress Dagmar Lassander (20 mins), an archival interview with actor David Warbeck (70 mins), and the featurette “In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat” on the film’s locations (8 mins). The box set is limited to 3000 copies and features a booklet. Also available separately with all the supplements except the booklet.

tenebraeTenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD) – Dario Argento’s 1982 feature was his return to the classic giallo after his excursions into supernatural horror with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, a best-selling thriller novelist whose promotional tour in Italy takes a terrible turn when a mysterious killer recreates the brutal murders from his book with real life victims. At first the killer targets so-called “deviants,” then Neal’s own friends, and finally promises that the author himself is next on the list, which prompts the author to turn detective.

Columbo it ain’t, but Argento has always been more concerned with style than story and his execution of the crimes is pure cinematic bravura. From the simple beauty of a straight-razor shattering a light bulb as the camera catches the red hot filament slowly black out to an ambitious crane shot that creeps up and over the sides of a house under siege in a voyeuristic survey that would make Hitchcock proud, Argento turns the art of murder into stylish spectacle. He even lets his kinkier side show with flashbacks of an adolescent boy and a teasing dominatrix in red stiletto heels, which come back as a key motif of the film. There’s something creepy about Argento’s fascination with the slicing and dicing big eyed, scantily clad Italian beauties, which he addresses with self-deprecating humor in a scene where Neal is taken to task for the misogynist violence of his stories, but his cinematic command of color and movement and point of view gives it a perverse beauty and he knows how pull a cinematic surprise.

Previously on DVD, the Blu-ray debut features the original Italian cut newly remastered from the original camera negative and the color is glorious. New to this edition is commentary by Argento expert Maitland McDonagh and the 90-minute documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of Giallo from Calum Waddell, which chronicles the development of the genre from its roots in early 20th century crime fiction and its influence on the modern slasher film. Rare English-language sequence insert shots are mastered in HD and playable within the film via Seamless Branching, and the disc include the American credits sequence (retitled Unsane in its original American release). The limited-edition Steelbook special edition also includes a bonus DVD copy, a CD soundtrack, and a booklet.

horriblehichThe Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is not exactly giallo but it is a forerunner to the genre. The 1962 Italian horror from Riccardo Fredo (under the name Robert Hampton) stars Barbara Steele (whose voice is dubbed) as the new young wife to widower aristocrat and famed surgeon Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), who wife accidentally died years ago while playing their (consensual) kinky sex games. She arrives in the grand old manor to find the legacy of the dead wife dominating the household.

The title is only the most prominent tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. The setting and plot evoke Rebecca and Notorious, right down to Harriet White as the severe, old family maid who remains devoted to the dead mistress and keeps certain doors locked from the new lady of the manor, and a skull found hidden under the bed covers is out of Under Capricorn. (Tim Lucas wrote a great Video Watchblog piece on the film’s influence of and homage to Alfred Hitchcock.) The style, however, is in the tradition of the Roger Corman Poe movies of the early 1960s, with Gothic style, intense color, sets that look evoke ancient castles and spooky dungeons, and that distinctive obsession with death with a kinky Italian twist that gets picked up in giallo. The hidden doorways and secret rooms, the basement chamber, even the cat slinking through scene after scene, all come from Poe.

Olive gives the film its American disc debut on a terrific-looking disc. No supplements and it’s the shorter, English-dubbed American cut only, but it’s essential for fans of giallo and Barbara Steele.

manhattanbabyManhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD+CD) – Lucio Fulci directs yet another knock-off of The Exorcist, this one starring Christopher Connelly as an archeologist who brings his family to Egypt. A blind woman in a marketplace gives his daughter (Brigitta Boccoli) an ancient amulet that apparently imbues her with a curse, or perhaps a demonic possession, that she carries back to New York City. Connelly is the token American star in an otherwise Italian cast, with Cinza De Ponti (Miss Italy of 1979) as the family nanny and Cosmimo Cinieri (who also co-starred in Fulci’s The New York Ripper) is the antiques dealer and amateur exorcist. Fulci also borrows from The OmenPoltergeist, and other films, and tosses them all together with his own obsessions (eyes and blindness) in this supernatural mess. Fulci, whose cavalier way with narrative logic stands out in a genre where such issues are routinely ignored, has his fans, thanks to the bizarre beauty and surreal spell of his best films. This isn’t one of his best but it has its moments and Blue Underground delivers a terrific three-disc special edition

Both the Blu-ray and DVD discs feature the great collection of new video interviews with composer Fabio Frizzi (56 minutes), actor Cosimo Cinieri (9 minutes), makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani (11 minutes), and Fulci historian Stephen Thrower (12 minutes), plus a live studio performance of Fabio Frizzi playing the main theme. Carried over from the previous DVD release is an 8-minute interview with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. Also includes a bonus CD with Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack and a booklet with an essay by Fulci specialist Troy Howarth.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘McCabe,’ ‘Pan,’ ‘Boyhood,’ and the ‘Last Chrysanthemum’ – Remastered

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

That’s the plot upon which Altman hangs his film, both a western and an anti-western, defined as much by the communal cast that mills through the picture and mutters dialogue in the swirling pools of sound as by the story of its charming but over-his-head hero McCabe and the caustic Miller who escapes nightly in a cloud of opium. This was the first major film shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who fled Communist Hungary in 1956 and spent a decade shooting cheap exploitation pictures and the occasional independent effort, and he helps Altman establish his signature style with the film. The camera prowls and floats through scenes with a gentle restlessness, constantly catching character bits and defining details, as if it were as much a character in Altman’s company as the actors. The colors are muted and the palette earthy and dark, giving the image the look and feel of no other western.

Altman shot as he built the town, hewn out of the mud and trees outside of Vancouver, BC, and he incorporated its creation and growth as part of the film, right down to the half-constructed buildings that are slowly finished. It’s our only real measure of time passing in a place where clocks and calendars are less important than seasons and sunsets. Time just washes along and people like McCabe and Miller either flow with it or get left behind. The soundtrack includes spare songs by Leonard Cohen that haunt the film with a lonely, melancholy quality. One of Altman’s masterpieces, and easily one of the finest American films of the 1970s.

Warren Beatty in 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' - Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Warren Beatty in ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ – Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Mastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new 4K digital restoration and presented with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. A lot of newly restored films show a marked difference from previous versions but the very nature of the film’s photography, which was systematically desaturated by cinematographer Zsigmond with a method called flashing to evoke an earlier time, means that the improvements are not as obvious. The colors are muted and somber with a dipped-in-amber look (the scenes in the Irishman’s bar have the golden look of candles and lamplight creating pools of illumination in the night) and the image looks softened, as if seen through the light haze of history. That’s a palette that can cause issues in mastering—the film grain is more pronounced and the digital transfer can exaggerate that grain into an overactive storm in the shadows—and Criterion does a great job of preserving that quality. You get a richer texture (and this film has amazing textures) and a greater range of detail and color.

Produced for this edition is a terrific 55-minute documentary “Way Out on a Limb,” featuring new interviews with actors René Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, casting director Graeme Clifford, and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury, and a 37-minute conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. There are also archival interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond (conducted in 2005 and 2008 and used in the film No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos) and an archival conversation between production designer Leon Ericksen and art director Al Locatelli with fellow production designer Jack De Govia discussing McCabe at the Art Directors Guild Film Society in Los Angeles in 1999. There are also two archival segments from The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 featuring Pauline Kael (making a case for the film) and, in a later show, Altman, and a gallery of stills shot on the set of the film by photojournalist Steve Schapiro.

Carried over from the 2002 DVD release is commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster (recorded separately but edited together for good effect) and a 10-minute promotional behind-the-scenes documentary from 1971.

panslabcriterionPan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 dark fairy tale, is an elemental Alice in Wonderland amidst the horrors of Francisco Franco’s reign of terror in 1944 Spain. While her brutal and cold-blooded stepfather (Sergi López) hunts down the remnants of the anti-fascist rebellion, our imaginative young Alice (in this case a girl named Ofelia, played with innocence and strength by Ivana Baquero), discovers a magic world of faeries and meets an enigmatic faun (Doug Jones) who sends her on a terrifying odyssey through an underworld of monsters.

Del Toro’s fantastical creatures have a primal, earthy quality, like ancient beings hewn from the earth and enchanted wood and resurrected after centuries in a state of decay and neglect, and a shadow of uncertainty hangs over the sense of wonder. Yet for all the terror Ofelia confronts – and del Toro reaches deep into the mythological subconscious and the unadulterated horror of early fairy tales for his primal visions – the haunting shadow worlds of imagination and nightmares pale next to the evil of the real world. Maribel Verdú co-stars as the caring housekeeper with a double life and Ariadna Gil plays Ofelia’s ailing pregnant mother. It won three Academy Awards: for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup.

The film has previously been available in fine DVD and Blu-ray editions. Criterion presents a new 2K digital master supervised by Guillermo del Toro. New to this edition are a 40-minute interview with del Toro by novelist Cornelia Funke about fairy tales, fantasy, and Pan’s Labyrinth and a new 26-minute interview with actor Doug Jones. Carried over from the 2007 release is a video prologue and commentary by Mexican director/writer Guillermo del Toro who describes his inspirations and explains his colors and textures and images with more articulation than most American directors can muster in their mother tongue. The 30-minute “Pan and the Fairies” follows the fantasy creatures from design to screen and, through raw production footage, shows you exactly (and ingeniously simply) how del Toro created the Faun’s goat-leg walk without animation and there additional archival featurettes, an interactive director’s notebook, footage of young actress Ivana Baquero’s audition for the film, and a foldout insert with a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.

Criterion also boxes the film up with previous releases of del Toro’s Cronos (1994) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) in the box set Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD).

boyhoodcritBoyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was arguably the movie of 2014. It dominated Top Ten lists and critics groups awards and it offered a different and daring kind of cinematic experience, something rare enough in American popular cinema.

It’s pretty well known that filmmaker Richard Linklater and his four central actors—Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as the older sister, and Ellar Coltrane as Mason—shot the film over the course of 12 years to watch not just Mason but everyone in the fictional family grow up and evolve over time. What’s most exciting about the film, however, is the way the film avoids the expected landmark moments and big dramatic conflicts to focus on the sense of life as an experience and an evolution.

Which is not to say there aren’t dramatic moments—Arquette’s single mom shows a history of bad judgment when it comes to life partners and one flight from a particularly bad marriage to a bullying drunk is both harrowing and startlingly realistic—but that the usual spotlight events are left offscreen. Because life isn’t about those flashpoints, it’s about connections made with friends, privileged moments with family, decisions, interests, disappointments, successes, and an evolution of character informed by experience.

That’s what this film becomes: an experience as much in the texture of this fictional life, growing up from first grade to arriving at college, as in the narrative journey. The performances are appropriately low-key and naturalistic and the evolution feels organic, thanks in large part to the collaboration of the actors and incorporating elements of their own experiences in the characters.

It runs 164 minutes, which lends itself to a home viewing (easier to get comfortable for the long haul), but it is something to see straight through as a single narrative experience.

It was previously released in a fine edition from Paramount. Criterion’s new two-disc edition, mastered from a new 2K digital transfer supervised by Linklater, features an all-new slate of supplements. There is commentary featuring Linklater and nine members of the cast and crew, the 50-minute documentary “Twelve Years” featuring behind-the-scenes footage from throughout the twelve-year production, the nearly hour-long discussion featurette “Memories of the Present” featuring Linklater and actors Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane, moderated by producer John Pierson, as half-hour “Always Now” with Linklater and Coltrane in conversation, Michael Koresky’s video essay “The Time of Your Life,” about time in Linklater’s films and narrated by Coltrane, and an animated gallery of portraits of cast and crew by photographer Matt Lankes, narrated with personal thoughts from Linklater, Arquette, Hawke, Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland. The accompanying booklet features a heavily footnoted essay by Jonathan Lethem.

storylastchrystanthemumKenji Mizoguchi, one of the masters of Japanese cinema, had already made 50 films by the time he made The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1939 drama of art, love, and sacrifice that has been called his first genuine masterpiece and is considered by many critics his greatest film. It’s the story of spoiled, arrogant actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adopted son of a great kabuki master, who believes the glib flattery of his father’s friends and jaded geishas until the family nursemaid, the modest, honest peasant Otoku (Kakuko Mori), confronts him with the truth of his hammy performances and his poor reputation and encourages him to improve. His family sends her away and he leaves the family troupe to make it on his own. Again she appears to offer encouragement, becoming his common-law wife but fully aware that once he proves himself and returns to Tokyo, she will have to leave him, a sacrifice she makes with eyes wide open.

Mizoguchi isn’t criticizing the social order that separates the classes, which modern audiences might assume, merely using it as the basis for a heartfelt tragedy. This is a film built on the belief that great art is worthy of such sacrifice while also recognizing that such sacrifice is as tragic as it is noble. Mizoguchi directs in lovely long takes—the first scene between Kikunosuke and Otoku is a slow, gentle tracking shot down a silent street in the hours before dawn—and subdued performances that suggests the anxiety and emotion under the public show of manners.

In Japanese with English subtitles. Criterion presents the film’s DVD and Blu-ray debut from a new restoration with a new interview with film critic Philip Lopate.

Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

Violent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

violentcopIn the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

Takeshi Kitano, better known by his nickname “Beat” Takeshi in Japan, rose to fame as a stand-up comic and remains one of Japan’s most popular TV personalities (he’s been known to host or star in as many as four TV shows simultaneously). His background helps explain how he can transform bullying bastards into such likable characters, but it doesn’t account for the fully realized style. Kitano stepped in as director of Violent Cop at the last minute and leapt out of the gate with a powerful, fully developed style. He boldly sketches shots with a seemingly simple directness and stages visceral action scenes with a mesmerizing impassivity: the camera locks down and watches the war zone erupt. And for a director of so-called action films, Takeshi’s cinema is full of static images and long digressions, intermissions from the blood sport. When the inevitable clashes recur, the sudden shots of brutality carry a startling kick to them.

boilingpointTakeshi’s second film, Boiling Point (1990), carries this stylistic idea even farther. The story concerns passive gas station attendant and baseball team benchwarmer Masaki (Masahiko Ono) whose one moment of action is a badly timed attack on a rude customer who just happens to be Yakuza. When the gangsters start taking it out on both his co-workers and his teammates, Masaki sets out to buy a gun and take care of the problem. Takeshi is even more oblique in his presentation of violent action and spends the middle of the film on a strange, rambling subplot involving a disgraced mobster (Takeshi again, this time in a supporting role as a fun loving brute with a penchant for rape) and his mission of revenge. The narrative almost dissolves in abstractions and digressions before the startling conclusion, but it remains a compellingly warped look at the uniquely Japanese culture of violence.

Violent Cop is a classic Japanese gangster tale shaped it into Kitano’s unmistakably warped reflection of cops and criminals culture with startling style and his charismatic presence, and is easily the bigger audience pleaser. Boiling Point isn’t as compelling but is in some ways more challenging and inventive. In these films he completely transformed the genre screenplay, a cops and gangsters tale of corruption and revenge, into a jaundiced, cynical vision.

Both are newly mastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts and new DVD editions. The initial DVD releases from the old Fox Lorber label fifteen years ago were pretty bad: soft, noisy, with interlaced video, and not mastered for widescreen TVs (no 16×9 option). These new discs are remastered in HD and are a marked improvement. They are sharper and feature greater detail and none of the video noise of the DVDs. The color, however, is a little weak and the image still a bit soft, likely due to the source materials.

Violent Cop includes the 20-minute featurette “That Man Is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano” and trailers. Boiling Point also includes the 20-minute featurette “Okinawa Days: Takeshi’s Second Debut” and the trailer. Both are in Japanese with removable subtitles and come with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Vick.

More releases on DVD and Blu-ray at Cinephiled

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’sNeruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

The festival is over now and my report is a lot later than I intended but most (if not all) of the films I saw will be coming to a theater, disc, or VOD stream near you so here are notes on a few highlights from six days and two trips across the border.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea), his first film since his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker, returns to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy with a story of con artists in 1930s Korea. His lush South Korean thriller, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex and nudity of an exploitation picture. Park adds the setting: Korea under Japanese colonial occupation. The target is the emotionally troubled heiress of a Japanese family fortune (Kim Min-hee) and the Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) drafts a street pickpocket and thief (Kim Tae-ri) to play his inside woman, the handmaiden to the Lady. That’s as much as you’d want to know walking in to the film, which lays all that out quite swiftly and wittily in the first few minutes of an involved film filled with set pieces, switchbacks, and flashbacks. It has all the elements you want from a good genre film and then it adds a fascinating dimension of national identity and appropriation as a matter of power, which is more a matter of gender than culture. What appears to be an elegant, self-aware exploitation thriller in costume drama dress reveals itself to be a love story hidden in a tale of exploitation and allegiance and it rewards us with a perverse fairy tale ending, albeit a fairy tale where the big bad wolves are pornographers, forgers, and pimps.

Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in 'The Handmaiden - Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures
Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in ‘The Handmaiden – Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures

Pablo Larraín’s Nerdua (Chile) is ostensibly about the revered poet, senator, and face of Chile’s Communist Party in the 1940s when he went underground and into exile after the government started imprisoning Communist Party members, union leaders, and protesters, with plenty of poetic license applied to history. Call it Larraín’s Citizen Kane, the story of a man’s life as understood through the stories surround him and the power that such stories and perceptions have. As such, it’s a film about storytelling and cultural mythmaking as shaped by Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco as an artist and social bon vivant embracing bourgeois privilege while playing the voice of the proletariat in public) and narrated by his nemesis. Gael García Bernal is Police Prefect Óscar Peluchonneau, assigned by the president to arrest and, more importantly, discredit Neruda in the eyes of the adoring public. He’s the film’s answer to the Citizen Kane‘s reporter Thompson by way of a warped reflection peasant-born poet Neruda, narrating as if he’s the hero of the tale. He’s also a complete fiction, as if created by created by Neruda himself, a poet who carries around paperback detective novels as pinballs from one safe house to another. Larraín’s direction and lush images play up the mythopoetic angle while he undercuts the pretensions with reminders of the reality behind the theater with Peluchonneau’s barbed (yet woefully un-self-aware) commentary and glimpses of the heroes fumbling and stumbling through their imagined heroics. The gaffes and stumbles and failures are for us, a reminder that there are people behind the myth. The myth remains eternal, given life by art and by faith in our heroes.

Paterson (US) is the name of Adam Driver’s character, a blue collar city bus driver; the location, Paterson, NJ; and a reference to a book of poetry by William Carlos Williams, a son of Paterson (the city) and the favorite poet of Paterson (the man), who is also a poet. Got it? Paterson pens his modest odes—most of them inspired by his wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani of About Elly), in the seat of his bus before beginning his route or sitting on a park bench at lunch, scribbling the phrases he’s worked out while watching the world go past his windshield or eavesdropping on the conversations of passengers. This is Jim Jarmusch in the mode of the unassuming poet of everyday American dreamers, surveying the rhythms of life in the blue collar city and celebrating the artistic impulses and creative projects that bring color to our lives: a teenage girl scribbling her own poetry, a bartender with a wall dedicated to the greatest sons of Paterson, NJ, Laura’s black-and-white designs adorning everything from her handmaid curtains to her fledgling cupcake business, though she has a new dream seemingly every day. The humor is low key and the narrative a lazy drift through a week in Paterson’s life, which has its own, inviolable routine. For Jarmusch, the wonder comes in the grace notes and delightful coincidences (watch for the twins that keep weaving through his story) and the warmth in the way he appreciates those moments. Paterson hasn’t any grand ambitions—even his poetry is a private pleasure, so different from Laura’s exuberance in sharing her creative activities with the world—but it doesn’t make his art or his life any less meaningful.

Staying Vertical (France), written and directed by Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake), plays like a metaphor for creative labor and writer’s block that got lost in the same loop that Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked screenwriter avoiding his deadline with a circular journey through the French countryside to the city and back, endlessly spirals down. It opens with him trying to pick up a surly, handsome young punk (Basile Meilleurat) and then shacking up with a single mom (India Hair) on a sheep farm on the prairie. It’s hard to measure time passing in this loop and before we know, he’s the father of a newborn that mom essentially leaves him in the break-up. This closed universe also includes the strangest naturopathic doctor you’ve ever met (she attaches plant fronds to Léo like cables to check his vitals) and a cantankerous old man who blasts prog rock from vinyl in the farmhouse home he’s let slide since his wife’s death. Along with the hardly-subtle symbolism stirred through the cycle (watch out for the wolves picking off the sheep!) is explicit sexuality (no surprise to anyone familiar with Guiraudie’s films but startling to anyone else) and naked desire. I found it overly glib and indulgent and the pansexual Léo is not exactly likable but fatherhood makes him sympathetic—it’s the only thing that motivates him besides his own desires and creative blocks—and Guiraudie brings an enigmatic beauty to the physical landscapes and Léo’s spiritual transformation and a sour twist to his satire on artistic purity in a world where wolves pick off the stragglers and loners abandoned to the wilds. By the end of the film I was, if not won over, at least intrigued by the earthy poetry of Guiraudie’s direction and the mix of resignation to loss and determination to survive.

Ken Loach won the Palm d’Or for I, Daniel Blake (UK), a classic Loach social commentary on the struggles of the working classes and underclasses let down by society. This one, about a 59-year-old carpenter and widower in Newcastle recovering from a heart attack while fighting for assistance, is at once an angry assault on a bureaucracy that treats people as case numbers to be filed and shuffled on, a defiant cry for dignity and respect for the folks at the bottom of the social ladder, and a touching portrait of human compassion and contact in the cracks of the system and the queues of people lining up for government assistance. The paperwork deems Daniel (played with incredulity and dogged determination by comedian Dave Johns) fine for work (no matter that his heart surgeon forbids him from returning to work) and cuts off his disability assistance, sending him through a surreal maze with no exit. Loach sustains the grueling ordeal with a tart humor, courtesy of John’s exasperated commentary at every bureaucratic roadblock, and his outreach to a single mother newly arrived in the area and struggling to feed her two kids while her assistance is on hold. It’s not just the compassion, it’s the feeling of being useful that the system his systematically beaten down. Katie (Hayley Squires) is not the daughter he never had, she’s just someone who needs someone on her side. That’s something Daniel can provide and it gives him reason to keep plugging away.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have their own way with social realism and commentary, one that that doesn’t have Loach’s humor but is just as good at capturing the textures and rhythms of lives and often better as sketching the anxieties and conflicts within communities. The Unknown Girl (Belgium) revisits themes from earlier films—poverty in poor communities, families going paycheck to paycheck, immigrants at the bottom of the social food chain—but views them through the eyes of a young doctor (Adèle Haenel). She’s on her way out of a small neighborhood office she has been running for a retired old doctor (perhaps a mentor, certainly a friend), treating folks on assistance and government insurance, at times paying out pocket in cash, at others putting off payments, and into bigger practice with prestige, resources, and an more upscale clientele. And then she discovers that a young woman found dead nearby had knocked on her door as she was closing and she ignored her. The police have no identity for the young woman, an immigrant and probably a streetwalker, so the doctor takes the responsibility upon herself and follows the trail into outskirts of the community she’s never really experienced. This is Dardenne redux in many ways, a film shot almost entirely with handheld cameras getting a little closer to the subjects than we’re used to, measuring both the connections she has built with some patients and the distance she keeps with others. But I also appreciate how her journey is initially driven by guilt but ends up powered by compassion and a sense of responsibility. Where I, Daniel Blake ends in frustration and rage and blame at the system, The Unknown Girl suggests that we can make things better one person at a time.

Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

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.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

Tourneur proves to be a master of suspense and a brilliant director of poetic horror and he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created remarkable, evocative images on a limited budget, using light and shadow like a film noir in a dream realm. This is a landmark of psychological horror and one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.

The Blu-ray debut is mastered from a new 2K restoration and it includes some terrific supplements, including the 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. It traces the career of the cult film producer from the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as  I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim. In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elisas Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.” Writer/director Kent Jones fills the production with rich clips and some inspired interviews (including Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is commentary by historian Greg Mank with archival audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon. New to the disc is an archival interview with Tourneur from 1979 and a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the Paul Schrader remake and studied the film in preparation. The 16-minute video interview is both an appreciation of RKO studio cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (complete with a comparison to the more heralded John Alton) and a revealing discussion of his work on the film. Also includes a fold-out insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

More horror Blu-ray and DVD special editions at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Bill & Ted and World War II

fixedbayonetsSamuel Fuller writes and directs Fixed Bayonets! (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a Korean War platoon drama set in snowy winter mountains. The small-scale production focuses on a small squad of American soldiers ordered to hold a mountain pass while their division retreats and stars Richard Basehart as Corporal Denno, a soldier who can’t bring himself to fire his rifle at the enemy and bristles at the thought of taking command, and Gene Evans as Sgt. Rock, a grizzled veteran who passes on his wisdom to Denno as senior officers are killed and he becomes the highest-ranking officer. Their only hope is to create the illusion of a much larger force hidden in the mountains and Rock has a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s the story of ordinary men rising to the occasion when the situation demands. Fuller draws on his service as a soldier in Africa and Europe in World War II to create the platoon dynamics (the squad is filled with all sorts of types) and the tactics and battle action. The entire film is shot on soundstages, with sets recreating the snow-covered mountains and forests and the caves in which the soldiers take refuge. It makes for a film small in scope and scale and more suggestive than realistic, and the artificial setting gives the film a kind of abstracted, theatrical quality that eschews sentimentality and melodrama for a blunt portrait men facing death that come suddenly and arbitrarily. James Dean is an uncredited extra but he’s hard to pick out.

Debuts on Blu-ray with commentary featuring film historian Michael Schlesinger with Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller, the widow and the daughter of Sam Fuller.

enemybelowThe Enemy Below (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a World War II submarine drama based on the novel of the same name by Commander D. A. Rayner, stars Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, the newly-appointed commander of an American Destroyer in the South Atlantic, and German star Curd Jürgens making his American film debut as Commander Von Stolberg, a German submarine commander whose mission is imperiled when the American warship gives chase. Murell is not a career Navy man—he was a merchant seaman before the war—and his unconventional tactics have the crew questioning his experience, but they rally under his command and they rise to the challenge of their first major enemy action. Directed by Dick Powell in a deliberate (at times plodding) manner, the film offers its share war movie action but the focus is on the battle of wits, a kind of chess game played with torpedoes and depth charges, with the two captains attempting to outwit the other by anticipating one another’s movies. David Hedison and Theodore Bikel co-star as the respective second officers. The 1957 feature has enough distance from the war to sidestep patriotic themes to present two officers dedicated to duty with dignity and respect for their respective crews. It won an Academy Award for its special effects and inspired the 1966 Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” with the Starship Enterprise recreating the role of the American Destroyer and a Romulan warship playing the submarine.

Debuts on Blu-ray with no supplements.

billtedcollectionBill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection (Shout Select, Blu-ray) gives the special edition treatment to a pair of cult slacker comedies. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are the high school underachievers and would-be rocker stars who are destined to save the world with their music, or so claims their most excellent fan from the future, a time-travelling sage named Rufus (George Carlin). But first they have to pass high school history and learn to play their instruments. Directed by Stephen Herek, this is spirited doofus comedy sustained by the sweet, slack-jawed performances of Reeves and Winter as dumbfounded idiots who stumble through time to cram for their history final with the help of a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to round up Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, and Socrates (among others) and bring them back to suburban California. Their finest moment: a meeting of minds with Socrates (whom they call “Soh-craits”) over a soap-opera proverb. “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

Peter Hewitt takes the reigns for the inspired sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey which is even sillier and funnier. Reeves and Winter are killed by evil robot doubles and sent to hell, where they play Twister with the Grim Reaper (a hilariously deadpan William Sadler with an indeterminate accent) and draft him into their band Wyld Stallyns (where the Grim Reaper goes show-biz with a vengeance). Wacky and weird and nonsensical, it’s hardly satire but the sheer invention of their ludicrous journey will have most dudes rolling on the floor. Both are rated PG and each film features two new commentary tracks: one featuring actor Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf, the other with writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon

A third disc includes the new documentaries “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun! – A Look Back at a MostExcellent Adventure” (61 minutes) and “Bill and Ted Go to Hell – Revisiting a Bogus Journey” (52 minutes), both featuring new interviews with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and co-writer Chris Matheson, among others. Carried over from the earlier DVD edition are the 30-minute “The Most Triumphant Making-of Documentary” (with Winter, writers Matheson and Ed Solomon, directors Stephen Herek and Peter Hewitt, and producer Scott Kroopf), the 20-minute interview featurette “The Original Bill and Ted: In Conversation with Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon,” plus “Score! An Interview with Guitarist Steve Vai,” “Hysterical Personages: A History Lesson” (on the historical characters on Excellent Adventure), “The Linguistic Stylings of Bill & Ted” (on their particular slang), and an air guitar tutorial by Bjorn Turoq and the Rockness.

captive1915The Captive (1915) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cecil B. DeMille helped established Hollywood as the center of American filmmaking in the 1910s and long before he made his reputation with a series of salacious comedies and a selection of grandly-mounted Biblical epics, he was cranking out a dozen films a year. This is one of those films, a short feature (running under an hour) that he produced and directed in 1915 from a play he wrote with his longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson.

Set in Montenegro during the Baltic Wars, it features early silent movie superstar Blanche Sweet as a Balkan farm girl left to tend the family farm and raise her kid brother when her elder brother is killed in battle against the Turks. House Peters is a Turkish POW who is assigned to work her farm and defends her from invading Turkish soldiers. The simplistic drama recreates the Balkin setting in California and DeMille directs in a straightforward manner that essentially illustrates the intertitles. Blanche Sweet is charming as the plucky farm girl who teaches her captive to do laundry and plow a field and House is handsome, chivalrous, and gentlemanly, the all-American boy as Turkish aristocrat in a fez that looks as authentic as a Shriner’s cap. File it under historical curiosity, an example of the unsophisticated storytelling that was old-fashioned within a year thanks to the impact of D.W. Griffith and by DeMille’s own rapid evolution as a filmmaker.

Though the packaging claims it was thought lost, it was actually discovered in the Paramount Vault in 1970 and was subsequently preserved by the Library of Congress. Still, it’s never been on home video in any form so this is the first chance most audiences have to see the film. No supplements.

Blu-ray: Ghostbusters 2016

ghostbustersGhostbusters: Answer the Call (Sony, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, 4K Ultra HD, DVD), originally released as simply Ghostbusters (2016), is the reboot / remake / revival of the 1984 frat boy comedy starring Bill Murray as a sardonic con man in academia turned nuclear powered paranormal investigator and the most controversial film of the year, at least if you measure such things by Facebook rants and Twitter burns from arrested adolescents. Why? Because it stars four women in the roles originally played by four men. Which is apparently is blasphemy in the fanatical fringe of the church of popular culture.

It’s a hard case to make when you actually see the film, a playful romp through a haunted New York City by four extremely funny women improvising banter through a half-baked script. Falling somewhere between remake and reinvention, it takes the basic premise, tosses in a new bad guy, adds lots of CGI phantoms and the usual apocalyptic assault on NYC, and… well, that’s pretty it. Which is enjoyable enough as these things go but a little disappointing from a film that reunites filmmaker Paul Feig with collaborators Kristen Wiig (of Bridesmaids) and Melissa McCarthy (The Heat and Spy), tag-team leads who generously share the laughs in a genuine ensemble comedy. Wiig is a physicist whose tenure track is derailed when her buried ghost-obsessed past comes back to haunt her thanks to her former high school BFF McCarthy, still struggling to give her paranormal research an academic stamp of approval. Kate McKinnon is the team’s secret weapon, a maverick nuclear engineer who whips up proton packs, atomic-powered ghost traps, and other cool inventions. She’s not so much a mad scientist as a gleeful eccentric with a manic energy that comes out in sideways glances, wicked grins, and spontaneous moves that suggests she’s dancing to her own private soundtrack. Completing the team is Leslie Jones as a subway worker and amateur New York historian who provides the blue collar practicality.

There are plenty of cameos from the original film, from cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver to the grinning green Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and precious few surprises. But there is one unexpected delight: Chris Hemsworth, taking a break from the regal authority of Thor, plays their bubble-headed hunk of a receptionist (aka “stripogram Clark Kent”) with the glassy-eyed abandon of a born improv comic. The big special effects set pieces lack the whimsical invention and twisted absurdity of the original film and the running jokes are tired before they hit their stride but these women have chemistry and quickly build a compelling sense of solidarity. They are a fun group to spend time with. If only they had a movie worthy of their comic potential.

The film has been rebranded Ghostbusters: Answer the Call for home video but it’s the same film, at least in the PG-13 theatrical version. An extended version with over 15 minutes of additional and extended scenes is also available on both VOD and disc.

The disc features the IMAX presentation, with the film letterboxed in the 2.39:1 widescreen format with some scenes reverting to IMAX full frame and special effects spilling out of the frame and into the black bars.

On Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one from director Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold, the other featuring editor Brent White, producer Jessie Henderson, production designer Jeff Sage, visual effects supervisor Pete Travers, and special effects supervisor Mark Hawker), the featurettes “Meet the Team,” “Visual Effects: 30 Years Later,” and “Slime Time,” and “Jokes a Plenty: Free For All,” and a collection of alternate improvisational takes (what was called “Line-o-rama” in Judd Apatow disc releases).

The Blu-ray editions add two additional featurettes (including a spotlight on Chris Hemsworth’s improvisations as Kevin), collections of deleted scenes and extended and alternate scenes, and the obligatory gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (which also includes extended and alternate scenes).

Ghostbusters [DVD]
Ghostbusters [Blu-ray]
Ghostbusters [4K UHD/3D Blu-ray]

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