Here in the Northeast, spring has been in the air–and out of it, too. So it’s still a good time to stay in, draw from the new release pile, and write some capsule reviews. Look forward to more in the coming weeks. Let’s start with the scariest movie I ever saw, with a concept that still gives me the willies–and reminds me that the cold has its uses.
That, of course, would be The Blob. I wrote the blog essay linked above in 2008, when the movie turned 50; it’s 55 this year, and the Criterion Collection (man does not live on Bergman and Tarkovsky alone) has ported over its fine DVD, commentary-and-memorabilia engulfed edition to Blu-ray. The added resolution (save for one bum reel that couldn’t be redone, not that it’s terrible) raised my hackles again–that all-devouring, pulsing mass has an existential dread to it that a horde of walking dead can’t equal in my consciousness. (The whole scene in the doctor’s office…brrr.) The DIY teens-in-trouble movie that surrounds it is better than you’d ever expect, with Steve McQueen’s star-making charisma and the appealing Aneta Corsaut uplifting and not upstaging hard-working amateur efforts elsewhere. The smalltown atmosphere is credible, and the movie never condescends to its characters (kids and adults) and audience. I don’t fast-forward to the “good stuff” when I sit down with The Blob—it’s all good stuff, right from the fun opening credits, a nice period piece enwrapped in a fiendishly simple idea for a legendary movie monster. And I can see Al Gore saying “toldja!” after the now-prescient dialogue that precedes its famous “?” ending.
Danny DeVito: Can it be that a generation mostly knows DeVito from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? TV and movie hits like Taxi, Ruthless People, and Batman Returns are decades old, his Jersey Films producing credits have dried up since their Pulp Fiction and Erin Brockovich heyday, and he hasn’t directed a film in almost ten years. A shame, because with the right script, he was terrific. The David Mamet-penned Hoffa (1992) wasn’t it; ornery and diffuse, a crabbed epic, it lets Jack Nicholson yammer boringly for two-and-a-half hours, and DeVito’s own part as a confidant is confused. No such problems with The War of the Roses (1989), one of the very best black comedies, with his Romancing the Stone co-stars Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (her last great starring role) in a sidesplitting splitsville romp. Emotionally you really hurt from laughing; I wonder if DeVito, caught up in his own marital woes, sees the lighter side today? New Blu-rays of both include his laserdisc-era commentaries.
Elena: From Russia, with malice, as class warfare erupts in a Moscow apartment when its wealthy owner decides to bypass his second wife and her sponging family in his will. This doesn’t sit well with Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a former nurse who has cared for him through a past illness, who reclaims the tools of her trade to set things right–permanently. I liked The Return, by filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, and was captivated by this insinuating portrait of a society gone mad with money, which features a Philip Glass score that thrums in your eardrums. The disc includes a half-hour interview with the filmmaker.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch: Onto another obsession, one that began amidst a gang of fellow teens in that great year of 1982, pumped to see the latest Michael Myers slasher–only to find a weird melange of ancient curses, robots, melting kids, and bug slush. My peers hated it, and the bitterness continues more than 30 years later. I love it still–so tawdry and early 80s yet so elegant and indelible, thanks to Dan O’Herlihy’s exquisitely judged incarnation of the spirit of Halloween–and I’m happy to see that Scream Factory, a new unit within Shout! Factory, has brought it to Blu in a nicely supplemented package, to hell with all detractors. Its only sin is that it’s not a “Halloween” movie, as if a whole slew of way crappier “official” sequels and remakes were any better. (But if that’s how you roll, Scream has also given the same treatment to 1981’s Halloween II, improving on a prior Blu.) Scream Factory has also put out John Carpenter’s rousing They Live on Blu, in time for its 25th anniversary, with the Halloween III of space vampire epics, 1985’s Lifeforce, due in June.
Lay the Favorite: The fickle finger of fate decreed that Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook would be The Weinstein Company’s awards season anointed for December, so this slip of a gambling comedy from Stephen Frears (The Queen) got dumped. Critics took a pass, too, and it’s not hard to see why; on the big screen, the movie, an inspired-by-a-true-story confection, wouldn’t amount to much. As a Blu-ray, however, it’s not-amounting-to-much is more of an asset, propelled by the usually serious-minded Rebecca Hall’s star turn as a ding-a-ling stripper turned canny Vegas numbers runner, in the employ of a relaxed and thoroughly charming Bruce Willis. Most recently seen in the glum HBO/BBC miniseries Parade’s End, Hall clearly reveled in the chance to play a dumb bunny who’s nobody’s fool, a move into Anna Faris territory that will I hope pay off in sunnier work. (She’s so sexy-cute here you’ll want to hug your monitor.) The journeyman filmmaker gets everyone, including Vince Vaughn (bad guy) and the usually creepy Joshua Jackson (boyfriend), to take it down a notch, and underplays the rivalry between the unavoidably flirtatious Hall and Willis’ better half, the sharp cookie Catherine Zeta-Jones (who nears The Yvonne De Carlo Story with each passing credit). Not much, then, though not nothing. The only extra is eight minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, and if you like this one, you’ll like the movie. (Hall’s on the left, if you don’t know her. You will soon.)
A Nightmare on Elm Street Collection: In the space of a few days in fall 1984 I saw James Cameron’s The Terminator, Brian De Palma’s Body Double, and Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion. Cameron’s is arguably the most influential, though by the time he could get a sequel together in 1991, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, also part of that week’s hit parade, had already spawned its five nimbly produced followups. All six, plus two episodes of the Freddy’s Nightmares TV show and 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, are part of this five-disc set, which repurposes a slew of commentaries, making-ofs, and other extras from a prior DVD box that should satisfy Freddy-philes. (If you really want to go into Freddy REM, check out the two-disc documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, produced in 2010 to tie in with the slumbering remake.) We recently looked at useless franchises, and discounted this one–correctly, I’d say. A classic start to a series that would have sucked me in as much as The Blob if I was still a teen suburbanite when I saw it led to a strange, sadomasochistic sequel, a superior third entry, a wild, effects-filled fourth, and then the two-film dropoff into more jokey comedy with a declawed Freddy and utter irrelevance. The meta New Nightmare, a reboot well before its time, makes up for some of the slack. (Outside the box is 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, a premise that reeked of exhaustion, if its execution wasn’t half-bad.) Improved transfers within the low-budget limitations of the source material are the main draw here, and while the price is right, smart shoppers will find this region-free set more cheaply still on Amazon UK, a good place for deals.
The Red House: HD Cinema Classics has been doing its best to uplift a few gems from public domain obscurity, notably Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963) and Suddenly (1954), with Frank Sinatra as a would-be presidential assassin. I’m partial to this spooky noir from 1947, with a sweatily neurotic Edward G. Robinson as a farmer who goes to extremes to protect the secrets within the secluded house of the title. Delmer Daves (the original 3:10 to Yuma, soon to be a Criterion release) puts the equally great Judith Anderson through the wringer, too. This Blu/DVD combo is the best this film has ever looked.
Burt Bacharach, bring us home with The Five Blobs…