What am I going as this Halloween? My usual, year-round costume: Horror, sci-fi, and fantasy movie buff. And I’m dressing up in some of the finest labels.
Scream Factory. Is physical media dead? With Scream Factory, it’s undead, as this essential source for all disc needs fantastic exhumes classic thrillers like Brian De Palma’s great Carrie, forty years young, and the camp-free (if amusing) chiller that took Chucky out of the box, Child’s Play (1988). These have made the rounds on Blu-ray before, but Scream brings the love with fresh transfers and brand-new extras that often complement ones from prior editions, making them definitive. Carrie has a bunch of new interviews, including co-stars Piper Laurie, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, William Katt, and Betty Buckley, plus a tour of the shooting locations, while Child’s Play has a new audio commentary with director Tom Holland (whose vision for Chucky prevailed just this one time) and a lot on Howard Berger’s special effects.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was recently added to the line, and in the same vein as last year’s welcome restoration of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) the label has again gone the distance with two maligned movies, De Palma’s Raising Cain (1992) and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III (1990), both with director-approved editions added as bonuses. All very gratifying for us fans. What I most like about Scream is a constant stream of Blu goodies, which this year has included a pairing of American International’s last Poe and Lovecraft adaptations (1971’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, in its most complete form, and 1969’s The Dunwich Horror), scream queen-era Joan Crawford in William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1965), Anthony Perkins slumming in the twin bill of the preposterous Destroyer (1988) and garish Edge of Sanity (1989), and Richard Thomas and the late Patty Duke in the underrated and underseen You’ll Like My Mother (1972), rescued from oblivion.
Meanwhile, woah, as Shout Selects has paired the Bill & Ted movies for the first time on Blu, in a Most Excellent Collection. Alex “Bill” Winter has dined out on these credits for years, and he and the writers are all over the supplements, which are so plentiful they get their own third disc. But Keanu “Ted” Reeves isn’t too big a star not to participate, and talking about these films almost 30 years later the two have chemistry enough for a planned middle-aged sequel. Both movies are still pretty amusing, though I give the edge to Bill Sadler’s Death and the evil robot duplicates in 1991’s Bogus Journey, which is making its Blu-ray debut.
There’s gold in them 80s shockers, and Lionsgate is panning it, with its Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-rays. Vestron Video endeared itself to horror fandom of a certain age with its inspired presentations of shockers on VHS, and the new label traffics in nostalgia while providing what we couldn’t get on videocassette–clean, widescreen, HD transfers, and lots of bonus material. A lot of what Vestron peddled, though, was junk, and the attention lavished on the insipid Blood Diner (1987), a clumsily satiric semi-sequel to the late Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) amounts to putting lipstick on a corpse. But the Corman stable’s killer-robots-in-a-store saga Chopping Mall (1986), which was always a shrug despite B-list cameos and in-jokes, is suddenly reanimated with a good presentation and fun features, including three commentaries (!), a breezy making-of, and an interview with a “killbot.” Better is to come from the label, including Bob Balaban’s edgy Parents (1989) and Ken Russell’s gonzo The Lair of the White Worm (1989), two of the beloved, bankrupting flops released theatrically by Vestron after it briefly had the time of its life with Dirty Dancing (1987).
No killbots or blood diners in another Lionsgate release, of a current title, Into the Forest. In a world suddenly without electricity, sisters Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld) make do without Blu-rays or much at all, and basically stay inside the confines of their house. It’s a post-apocalyptic vision bereft of zombies and most other accoutrement of the genre, and some will find their plight boring. (It is Canadian.) I rather liked the unplugged stillness and daylit beauty after my immersion in Scream and Vestron, and it’s no picnic for the siblings, just not the usual thriller. Proving that every director ultimately makes his or her own end of the world movie, director Patricia Rozema, a veteran of northern cinema since the early Miramax release I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), supplies a thoughtful commentary.
The Criterion Collection gets its freak on this time of year, with excellent renderings of the classic Cat People (1942) and the trippy animated fantasia Fantastic Planet (1973) now available. One of its highlights is a stellar edition of Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), available individually or in a box set with his other Criterion-collected films Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Watching those earlier credits you can see how del Toro made the leap to this phenomenal work, set amidst the Spanish Civil War and the nightmare world of fascism, with a little girl caught up in horrors that fuse the mundane and the phantasmagorical. Simply a devastating film, and the need for an adequate Blu-ray has finally been addressed in what is a tenth anniversary edition, sharper in appearance, and with a more immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track. Supplements include a del Toro commentary and documentaries drawn from a prior edition; new material includes a discussion with del Toro and novelist Caroline Funke (Inkheart) about fairy tales, a sit down with co-star Doug Jones about playing the Faun and the Pale Man. An essential release.
Film Movement scratched my itch to see Kamikaze ’89 (1982), a bit of gonzo futurism with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his final acting role, barnstorming his way through an inscrutable corporate conspiracy while wearing leopard skin ensembles (and firing a leopard-skin gun). I love Fassbinder’s movies yet this satire, vaguely reminiscent of Alphaville or The Tenth Victim, is a matter of taste, though a Franco Nero cameo (he was in Fassbinder’s last film as director, Querelle), cyberpunk atmosphere and attitude, and music by the late Edgar Froese will appeal. Of greater interest within this nonetheless worthy Blu-ray release is an hour’s worth of footage that director Wolf Gremm took of Fassbinder on and around the set, and a hysterical collection of radio spots in support of the feature yammered by none other than John Cassavetes, sounding completely pickled. Did these air anywhere? Producer Regina Ziegler (Gremm’s wife) offers a commentary track to go along with the mostly solid if uneven video transfer, yet Gremm regains the spotlight from his star on a separate DVD with “Wolf at the Door,” a moving account of his struggle with bone cancer, which took him last year. A melancholy package.
The late Joe Sarno was the subject of an excellent documentary, A Life in Dirty Movies (2013). Now the distributor is reviving the “dirty movies” themselves, starting with a double feature Blu-ray, of Sin You Sinners (1963) and Vampire Ecstasy (1974). Both have nominal supernatural plots to go along with the soft core skin, and the uninitiated will be glad to have Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas aboard for informative liner notes on an eclectic body of work on the fringes. (The disc transfers, watchable if expectedly rough, are complemented by trailers, commentaries, and archival interviews with Sarno.) About a troublesome voodoo medallion that keeps an exotic dancer ageless, the black and white Sinners is akin to an hour-long stag film, and obtains its interest mostly as Sarno’s oldest surviving movie. More assured, and in color, is the German-backed Vampire Ecstasy, Sarno’s take on the then-popular lesbian vampire genre (The Vampire Lovers, Daughters of Darkness, etc.). With an uninhibited star in 18-year-old Swede Marie Forsa, and location shooting that belies its budget, it exists in its own time and place, and plays like a dispatch from some doomy netherworld of sex and horror, as both were going to greater extremes outside Sarno’s cinema.
A(sian)-horror brings its A game with two commendable chillers from Well Go USA Entertainment. Set in 1930s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre is a handsomely produced shocker with echoes of its operatic cousin, and Hong Kong-made ghost story romances like Rouge (1988). Here a determined young moviemaker directs a supernaturally tinged melodrama in a restored movie palace allegedly haunted by the spirits of fire victims who died there 13 years later. That’s just asking for trouble, and trouble comes, in the form of an apparition and the reappearance of memories thought buried. (The director’s son, played by HK shock movie veteran Simon Yam, is a warlord.) A Blu-ray would have brought out more of the film’s opulent design, but the pretty much barebones DVD is workable.
The Wailing doesn’t offer much more in the way of supplements, yet after 156 minutes of constantly surprising thrills and chills you’ll be too wrung out to care. An unexpected hit at arthouses this summer, the latest from Korea’s Na Hong-jin (of the fine crime movies The Yellow Sea and The Chaser) is a consistently off kilter look at an insular small town whose eccentricities tip over to insanity when a Japanese “outsider” enters their midst. His presence leads to motiveless killing sprees and worse when a policeman new to the area (Kwak Do-won) brings in a shaman to exorcise the possessed, who include his daughter. Nothing is played entirely straight here, however, and the film takes its time to immerse you in its peculiar environment. The Blu-ray transfer is outstanding, and the movie is bound to impress if you give it time.
Cohen Media Group–well, OK, not much of a genre label. And Douglas Sirk, best known for revealing Fifties melodramas like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959), wasn’t a genre filmmaker. A Scandal in Paris (1946), one of his first films before he went high-gloss Universal, isn’t genre, being a life of sorts of famed French criminal turned noted police prefect EugÁ¨ne FranÁ§ois Vidocq (George Sanders). It is, however, entertaining hokum, with Sanders as urbane as always, and the company’s Blu-ray transfer is a best faith effort given aged elements. In Lured (1947), revue producer Sanders matches wits with taxi dancer Lucille Ball in foggy London, as they attempt to find the mysterious “Poet Killer.” We love Lucy, in one of her better outings before she turned to television, and we love the supporting cast, straight from a Universal monster rally like House of Frankenstein (1944)–Boris Karloff, as a mad dress designer! Cedric Hardwicke, as Sanders’ business partner! George Zucco, stealing the show as a dubious detective! Plus, Charles Coburn, Alan Mowbray, and Alan (“Alfred the butler”) Napier, too. Good breezy fun, with spooky noir shadings, so one of Two Films by Douglas Sirk Cohen has collected is appropriate viewing tonight.
The Shallows was what passed for grownup entertainment from Hollywood this past, kiddie mentality-skewing summer, though at least benighted critic went overboard, and said it was better than The Birds (1963). “Better” in that it’s more pro-feminist, more empowered, as if Alfred Hitchcock should have been clairvoyant and predicted exactly where the world would stand on these issues fifty-three years later. (Unlikely.) But Liam Neeson’s go-to director Jaume Collet-Serra, working with more “enlightened” material, is no Hitchcock at building atmosphere and suspense, and the woman vs. shark premise gets his usual workmanlike treatment. Blake Lively gives it all she can, not so much that she can convince us that she and the digital marauder ever really interacted. (Time may have passed “Bruce” by, but he was there in the water for Jaws.) It doesn’t dawdle, and after enjoying a fantastic, good-as-new transfer there’s decent making-of material, and an interview with shark experts and an attack victim. The Shallows and The Birds, however, are completely different animals.
When is a flop not a flop? When it’s another sequel to Underworld, Resident Evil, or Bridget Jones’s Diary, Inferno, or Warcraft–movies made with foreign grosses foremost in mind. Like last year’s Terminator Genisys, the video game adaptation failed to cross the $100 million “century mark” at home, yet cleaned up overseas. It’s good that I don’t do plot summary, as I can’t even with this thing–there’s humans, and tusked orcs, and some other beasts, some good, some bad, teleporting through medieval, Game of Thrones-type landscapes, fighting, conspiring, loving, and fighting some more. There’s tons of CGI eye candy that doesn’t need translating, some of which impresses (hitching rides on majestic flying gryphons, or clashing armies that suddenly, startlingly materialize in front of each other) and an actorly flourish or two from Ben Foster, as a junior Gandalf shooting lightning bolts out of his hand, and late-arriving bad guy Clancy Brown. Duncan Jones, of the much smaller fantasies Moon and Source Code, manages a sprawling canvas overstuffed with visuals and characters you can’t joystick through, but while not terribly engrossing it makes for lavishly transferred home theater viewing. Extras include a decent making-of and a motion comic to keep you off your gaming system for an hour or so. I’m not sure how big Ron Perlman isn’t in this but a “China-centric” sequel (duh) is planned. Maybe it’ll go straight to video here.
“China-centric” sensation Angelababy plays a glam fighter pilot in Independence Day: Resurgence. The casting didn’t help, as interest in Independence Day (1996), a great advertising campaign in want of a great movie to advertise, waned over the intervening decades since it was No. 1 at the boxoffice. There’s nothing to do but bring back some of the original cast (including poor Robert Loggia, in his last, easy to miss one-scene part) to combat the returning aliens, who this time vacuum up Asian skyscrapers and dump them on Big Ben and London Bridge. To say we’ve seen this before is the understatement of our digital effects era, and the movie, bone-tired corporate product for the summer market, makes cynical, cheerless fun of itself. (Unsurprisingly, this is one of those underlit, unimaginative 3D transfers, with mild depth and only incidental pop-out.) After 2012 (2009) director Roland Emmerich called it quits on world-smashing sagas, then, having whiffed with the theater-clearing Anonymous (2011) and Stonewall (2015), returned to the drying teat. He’s punished by having to submit a commentary and participate in a standard making-of.
Nicolas Winding Refn has a clique of admirers, but for me he’s just a few steps up from Roland Emmerich. I should like him–he makes films about subjects that interest me, and he’s an aficionado and supporter of trashy movies. Drive (2011), his one credit with some commercial pulse, is decent, and I recall liking the Pusher trilogy, which brought him international attention. (I saw them on the Sundance Channel, when that was a laudable, ad-free enterprise.) The Neon Demon, which flopped at Cannes and in wide release here (not ill-advised, as it likely would have grossed the same meager ducats at arthouses, over a prolonged period), continues his crawl into the anus of his obsessions. The story of an underaged modeling hopeful (Elle Fanning) beset by witchery in the fashion jungle of LA, the film is attractively eroticized in a sparkle and blush kind of way, lovely to look at and listen to on Blu (even sodden motel curtains billow and gleam), and cold as ice–Showgirls meets The Hunger meets Looker meets Death Becomes Her meets Repulsion meets Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein meets one hundred other DVDs Refn had on before he wrote it, based on his own nightmares of abandonment and lonelinesss. (So he says on the pleasantly loose-limbed commentary track he shares with Fanning, where they dish the fast, economical shoot.) Jena Malone makes the most favorable impression doing some of the most awful things; you’ll wonder, however, why Keanu Reeves ducked out on Bill & Ted III meetings to fill his unappetizing part. I appreciated the gumball eyeballs the publicist sent in the press package, though I wish I chewed them before watching the movie.
Are your kids going as Batman and Robin today? Are you? If so, which Batman and Robin–and please don’t tell me Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell. There’s only one pairing that works, and it’s that of Adam West and Burt Ward–who, fifty years after the debut of their bat-tastic TV incarnation, have returned in a delightfully nostalgic animated feature, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. Turn that Christopher Nolan frown upside down with a welcome revisit to the days of puns, cliffhangers, and bat-this and -that, with Julie Newmar adding to the fun as Catwoman and 60s-era Joker, Penguin, and Riddler (a spot-on Frank Gorshin imitation) all present and accounted for in a typically off-the-wall caper. Eighty-eight-year-old West doesn’t quite have that “Batman” sound anymore (71-year-old Ward still does) yet he’ll always be Batman for those of us of a certain age, and my kids loved all the high-style nonsense, too, which adapts well to the more serious DC animated universe. A handsome Blu-ray presentation comes with extras that include interviews with its dynamic trio. Ka-pow!