Spinning Discs: Witches Brew

Written by Film, Spinning Discs

Maleficent, Macbeth, and monsters for Halloween.

Halloween festivities started early for us, as Maleficent arrived a few days ahead of street date–and when Angelina Jolie knocks on your door, you open it. The closest thing we have to a queen of the world, Jolie enjoyed a huge success with Disney’s revisionist spin on its Sleeping Beauty (1959), putting the evil enchantress front and center. As I noted way back when, Jolie is part-woman and part-digital creation, and draped in jaw-dropping darkling costumes and accoutred in special effects she is deeply in her element here, casting spells over Aurora (Elle Fanning)–and my kids, who didn’t mind the patchwork script and embraced the Frozen-ish empowerment angle that prevents Maleficent from being too scary. Older folks will revel in the production design and find interest in the modifications to the storyline that hit the bulls-eye, notably the inciting incident that warps the title character as a young fairy, one that brushes against the PG rating. I had a few un-PG thoughts myself, wondering if Angelina dresses this way in the bedroom for her new husband, and how long it will take the fabulous Maleficent to become a gay icon. In any case: gorgeous Blu-ray transfer (no 3D, however, if you roll that way at home) and some worthwhile extras focused on Fanning, the big battle scene, the effects work, and “Maleficent’s spellbinding head wraps and jewelry.” Not long at all…

Luc Besson, who had a surprise hit with Lucy after a few misses from his action movie assembly line in France, also has a sideline in children’s animation. Yeah, I haven’t paid much attention to it, either, but its latest, more or less straight-to-video offering, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, made me and my kids sit up and take notice. A CGI feature based on a concept album (someone still puts those out? Retro!) by the French rock band Dionysos, it’s an Edward Scissorhands-like story about a boy with an unstable ticking heart that starts to beat a little too fast when he’s thrust into some zany adventures and feels the first stirrings of love–understandable, as his would-be girlfriend, a chanteuse who haunts his dreams, is dubbed by Samantha Barks, who I crushed on hard in Les Miserables. Done up in Victorian finery and Corpse Bride macabre at times, there’s also some sweet to go along with the bitter, and an absolute humdinger of a scene involving a “ghost train” that bears repeat play. Not much in the way of extras here to complement a handsome presentation but I do recommend taking the option to view the film in French, with subtitles, for Dionysian pleasure in its native tongue.

Not for the small fry iSD1s the Criterion Collection rendering of Macbeth (1971), the latest Roman Polanski film to receive its luxury treatment. I was I think a sophomore in high school when me and fellow students were bused to the long-defunct K-Cinema in Randolph, NJ, for a screening, and were left pleasantly scandalized by his blood-and-breasts take on one of Shakespeare’s most horripilating plays. Right down to its cleaving climax it fit right in with Friday the 13th, which played that year, and, wow, our high school really rocked for taking us (to a Polanski film, no less, when the underage scandal was still fresh, and one produced under the auspices of Playboy). I’ll bet it made more than a few of us devoted fans of the Bard, so, mission accomplished. And it holds up beautifully; Macbeth lends itself to film adaptation more easily than other Shakespeares, and this is one of the best. Taking a page from the hit Romeo and Juliet (1968), Polanski cast it younger, with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis giving avid performances in the leads, and doesn’t stint on earthy violence, in a very rough year for cinema (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Get Carter, The Devils, etc.) The director-approved 4K transfer brings the film back to life, thrillingly, and this being Criterion there are bountiful extras: a new documentary with Polanski and Annis, among others; a period documentary with the filmmaker, who was picking up the pieces after the horrific death of his actress wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family; a Dick Cavett interview with critic and adapter Kenneth Tynan, no slouch either in the arts; and more. Hard to believe but Macbeth was coolly received back then for its fiery vision–thanks, Ron Lucas and fellow RHS English teachers, for knowing a classic when they saw it.

SD 2The late George Sluizer made his signature film, The Vanishing (1988), twice. When the Dutch original sent shock waves through arthouses, he took another stab at it in 1993 for US consumption, casting Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and a fresh-faced Sandra Bullock–and, crucially, changing its astonishing ending. It’s an awkward transposition (also now on Blu-ray, from the Twilight Time label) that cast a pall over the original–was it really that good? Hell, yes, and Criterion’s revisit will leave you as shaken as I was a quarter-century ago. (It also frightened Stanley Kubrick, who knew from good thrillers.) It’s about…well, a disappearance, and if you’ve read this far and are curious, buy it, on Blu-ray or DVD, I promise you’ll vanish into its scrupulously controlled madness, obsession, and “golden egg.” A fresh transfer is accompanied by new interviews with Sluizer and actress Johanna ter Steege, who has the part Bullock later played.

This week brings some other strangeness to home video. Another Tuesday, another weird James Franco project, this one an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, about the pitfalls of living off the grid, as experienced by a Tennessee outcast (Scott Haze, fully committed to the part) whose outrages include but are hardly limited to necrophilia. Filmed with an (intentionally) shaky hand it’s difficult to say the least, not exactly suited for party viewing, and further proof that Franco’s reach exceeds his grasp as he again tries to force cinema onto a purely writerly vision. No extras besides a trailer, not that most viewers will go looking for them afterwards.

A “revisal” of the musical Side Show opens soon on Broadway. Bone up on Violet and Daisy, the Hilton sisters (an inspiration on this season’s American Horror Story, too) with the illuminating documentary Bound by Flesh, which tells the remarkable story of the “Siamese twins.” Born in England in 1908 to a barmaid, who, horrified, gave them up to her pub owner employer, the girls were ruthlessly exploited throughout their lives, from exhibition in their crib in Brighton to the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, where they sang and played instruments. They also appeared in the classic Freaks (1932), and, on the long downward slope of their forced-upon fame, the exploitation quickie Chained for Life (1951), from which much of the footage of the duo is derived. Filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis (Behind the Burly Q) relies on archival material and reminiscences of the vanished mediums that supported the twins to tell their heartbreaking saga, and additional interviews and a making-of round out the package.

SD5The things I watch for you people. There’s disturbing, and there’s Moebius, the latest from the hard-to-pin-down Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, who has made films of great beauty (2003’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) and…this, a simmering stew of rape, castration, incest, and some other perversities. Oh, and it’s dialogue-free, 90 minutes of grunting, shouting, and muttering, as a mom (Lee Eun-woo), upset with dad’s philandering, cuts off her teenage son’s penis in retaliation and eats…are you still with me? Dad lends a helping hand by researching penis transplants and participation in a  gang rape of his mistress, who is also played by Lee. Then, when Mom turns up again, things get really offbeat….offbeat, and extreme, and sort of funny, too. Kim, Lee, and the cast participate in supplemental interviews (one a group effort from the essential New York Asian Film Festival) that have no hope of demystifying the film if you can’t get on its wavelength to begin with. Are the remake rights available for James Franco?

Easier to take is a Hong Kong revival of the jiangshi, the “hopping vampires” popularized by the horror action comedy Mr. Vampire (1985) and its numerous sequels and knockoffs in the golden era of Crown Colony filmmaking. Rigor Mortis, which takes itself more seriously than its predecessors (or as seriously as a movie about hopping and otherwise airborne vampires can take itself) is very “meta”: Mr. Vampire star Chin Siu-ho plays himself, middle-aged and depressed, whose suicide attempt in a crumbling apartment complex roils the spirit world and has the undead up and hopping. Can fellow dwellers played by his  Mr. Vampire co-stars save the day? Good fun even if you don’t catch the references, and essential viewing if your memories are as fond as mine are, Rigor Mortis is stylishly directed by Juno Mak, though he goes a little heavy on the CGI.

SD3Back to homegrown horror. Do you want more of the night he came home? How about all of the night he came home? The (continuing?) adventures of Michael Myers, Halloween‘s favorite son, have been sliced and diced every which way on home video, and are now collected in a ten-film Blu-ray box set. To be honest, I’m done with the series after the third, mongrel installment, and while I appreciated the latter-day return of Jamie Lee Curtis and a very few of the redneck touches Rob Zombie applied to his remakes, consider me gone after 1982. The box did allow me to spend some time with the disdained, amateur hour middle installments. Notable is the inclusion of a “producer’s cut” of the sixth, 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. To its credit, it brings into play some of the supernatural elements of the unjustly reviled, Michael-less third part–then can’t pull them off. The struggle behind the movie is, however, fascinating, and writer Daniel Farrands and composer Alan Howarth take us through Hollywood hell in an excellent commentary that complements some detailed making-of segments. The movie is also noteworthy for its odd cast: Susan Swift, who never capitalized on her early fame starring in 1977’s Audrey Rose, original True Grit star Kim Darby, lantern-jawed stalwart Mitchell Ryan (Lethal Weapon), Myers tracker Donald Pleasence in his last role, and, in a debut marred by a poor accent, none other than Paul Rudd.

(Haven’t seen it yet, but Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990), another title put through the editorial meat grinder, has reemerged in approved form, too.)

SD4Remember Van Helsing (2004)? I prefer to forget. Did you rush to the movies to see Dracula Untold? Neither did I. Such excitement hasn’t stopped superhero-challenged Universal from forging ahead with plans for a new movie “monsterverse.” [Heavy sigh.] Me, I’ll stick with the adult-oriented revisionism of Showtime’s outstanding Penny Dreadful. You, meanwhile, should take advantage of Amazon’s current low price and purchase Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, a repackaging of ten-year-old DVD titles that made the release of Hugh Jackman’s dumpster dive into digitalized action horror somewhat more bearable. While some of the best of these films made it to Blu-ray last year, and more in and out of this box (like The Black Cat) should migrate to that format, this isn’t a bad deal at all if you didn’t buy them back then, or have had some problems with those discs not playing properly. (As was widely reported around that time regarding Universal’s release of its Hammer horrors, which was also recently reissued.) You can’t go wrong with the content: No film collection is complete without Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), my very favorite, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)–and the various offshoots,”monster rally” sequels, and Abbott and Costello spoofs are lots of fun, too. The terrific extras have also been retained. From the way the movies are packaged, with some of the sequels repeated up to three times to represent the designated monster in each set, it’s clear this box will be broken up for more targeted sales, but why wait? Pounce like the wolf man and hope that the (heavy sigh) “monsterverse” will lead to more Blus of the good stuff.

Also available: The second season of the grisly Hannibal goes deeper into the Lecter mythos and takes the characters in surprising new directions; Monsters, old school horror TV from Tales from the Darkside producer Richard P. Rubinstein, allows for plenty of “spot the star” (Steve Buscemi! Tony Shalhoub!) amidst entanglements with pre-digital beasts; The Calling, an OK mystery centered on ritual killings, keeps Susan Sarandon, the new queen of VOD, Donald Sutherland, and Ellen Burstyn in work, as I scratched my head and wondered why the appealing Topher Grace never had more of a movie career; and, while not horror, Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) generates taut, Deliverance-level suspense as National Guardsmen led by Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe confront homicidal bayou denizens.

As the witching hour begins I’ll leave you with this artifact of Hong Kong cinema in its wild years: NSFW, not for the squeamish or sensitive, and not to be taken seriously. Yet.