|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful critic looks at a few films that you might have missed in theaters, several old horror titles that have been missing in action for years and a certain musical that simply refuses to die.
Like many film buffs of a certain age, a good portion of my cinema education came from spending Saturday afternoons watching the Son of Svengoolie, the host of a Chicago-based TV show who would show old horror movies interspersed with song parodies, dumb jokes and snarky commentary about the cheap special effects and overripe performances. It was on this show that I first encountered such classics as “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and it was where I first encountered such less-revered titles as “Revenge of the Creature” (which was even broadcast in 3-D), “Robot Monster” and the immortal “The Giant Claw.” (It was also on this show that I learned that there are few funnier things in this world than a rubber chicken or the mere mention of the suburb of Berwyn.) Although Svengoolie is still broadcasting today, most of the other horror hosts that used to appear in other cities have lone since fallen by the wayside, partly out of a general decline in local television production (after all, why bother to create something new when you can slap on a rerun of “According to Jim”?) and partly out of a perception that contemporary audiences wouldn’t want to sit through old black-and-white horror films that didn’t contain the blood and breasts that they now demanded from the genre. As a result, these films, once a staple of late-night television, have become downright difficult for the average person to see.
As the chief producer of horror films in America during the genre’s heyday from the 1930's through the mid-1940's, Universal Pictures has an enormous backlog of such films but the problem is that for every unassailable classic like “The Wolf Man” or “Dracula’s Daughter” in their possession, there are five or six that are anything but classics. And while these films have a loyal fan base behind them, there simply aren’t enough people who would presumably purchase them to make releasing them a worthwhile business decision. However, perhaps finally realizing that they can only re-release “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” so many times, Universal has finally dipped further into their archives and brought out some of their more obscure titles in a trio of collections that stress quantity over quality–there are no extras to speak of outside of the odd trailer or two but they have made up for that by combining multiple titles into sets that sell for the price of the average fully-stocked DVD. While these titles are considerable less impressive than their best-known properties and are probably not the best place for a newcomer to begin, the mere fact that they can now been seen in a format other than a third-generation videocassette of an old, heavily edited TV broadcast is liable to fill many a horror buff with a giddy sense of delight.
Last year, Universal released “The Bela Lugosi Collection,” a strong set of titles that included perhaps the best of all the Universal horror shows, the extravagantly weird “The Black Cat.” It was almost inevitable that this year would see a similar release dedicated to the films of his frequent co-star and rival, the late, great Boris Karloff. The problem, however, is that while Karloff made a large number of films for the studio over the years, the best ones have already been issued on DVD. (In fact, four of the five films contained on “The Bela Lugosi Collection” also starred him as well.) As a result, the five films featured on “The Boris Karloff Collection” are hardly top-shelf material from the horror icon–in a few cases, the films in question aren’t even actual horror films. 1937's “Night Key,” for example, is an oddball mixture of the fantasy and crime genres in which Karloff plays an elderly inventor who develops a machine that can break into any lock and is forced by gangsters to use it for nefarious purposes. 1939's “Tower of London” is actually a riff on “Richard III” in which Karloff plays the murderous flunky to homicidal monarch Basil Rathbone. 1944's “The Climax,” originally designed to be a sequel to the previous year’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” features Karloff as a doctor with a mysterious past who develops a mad obsession with a beautiful young musical student. 1951's “The Strange Door” has Karloff playing a weirdo manservant who tries to help a sweet young couple escape the clutches of madman Charles Laughton. Finally, 1952's “The Black Castle”sees Karloff as the physician for a castle run by a count accused of murdering two close friends of a famed adventurer. Of these titles, the only must-see is the magnificent “Tower of London”–while Karloff only has a supporting role, it is arguably the best screen adaptation of “Richard III” to date–but these five titles do at least show that Karloff was capable of more than simply lurching around in creature makeup.
Speaking of films that were sold as horror titles even though they weren’t, the six “Inner Sanctum” titles produced by Universal between 1943 and 1945 have always been a sore spot with fans because they always promised lurid thrills and unspeakable supernatural sights and always turned out to be nothing more than dreary drawing-room dramas, all of which starred a usually miscast Lon Chaney Jr., in which someone believed themselves to be the victim of the occult, only to discover that it was nothing more than a scheming spouse or relative trying to frame them for a crime or make off with an inheritance. Barely tolerated in their day and largely forgotten now, the six films, which have been off the video market for years (in some cases, they have never been previously issued) have been compiled on the two-disc “Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection.” They include 1943's “Calling Dr. Death” (Chaney hears voices imploring him to kill his hated wife and is placed under suspicion when the shrew turns up dead), 1944's “Weird Woman” (Chaney marries a woman raised in the world of voodoo and becomes concerned when the people who she makes dire predictions about turn up dead ), 1944's “Dead Man’s Eyes” (Chaney plays a tortured artist who loses his sight and is placed under suspicion when his future father-in-law, who promised to will him his corneas, turns up dead), 1945's “The Frozen Ghost” (Chaney plays a disgraced hypnotist who is placed under suspicion when people around him begin to turn up dead), 1945's “Strange Confession” (Chaney plays a chemist dedicated to finding a cure for influenza who snaps when his unscrupulous boss puts an untested version of the drug on the market with tragic results) and 1945's “Pillow of Death” (Chaney plays the unscrupulous lawyer for a supernaturally-inclined family who is placed under suspicion when his wife turns up dead). Even by the standards of low-budget B movies of the era, these films are all pretty weak (the best of the bunch is “Strange Confession” and that is only because of the lurid opening scene that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling) and while it is nice to see these films emerge from their limbo, they are recommended for fanatics only.<
Ironically, the set that contains the most recognizable titles–“The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection”–is also going to be the hardest to find for some people as it is currently only be offered for sale exclusively through the Best Buy chain (though I presume that, like other such exclusives, it will be available at other outlets in the next few months). This particular collection focuses on the science-fiction/monster movies that made Universal tons of cash in the 1950's. 1955's “Tarantula” has B-movie stalwart John Agar battling an enormous irradiated spider (with a little help from fighter pilot Clint Eastwood, in an early screen appearance). Agar pops up again in 1956's “The Mole People,” in which he plays an explorer who stumbles across the mysterious land of the titular creatures and beats more than a few of them up to display his superiority. Perhaps the best-known film here (and the one that could have really used the special edition treatment), 1957's “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” written by the famed Richard Matheson, tells the story of an ordinary guy (Grant Williams) who begins growing smaller and smaller after passing through a mysterious mist. A full-size Williams returns to save the day once again in 1957's “The Monolith Monsters,” in which he plays a geologist trying to get to the bottom of some space rocks that petrify all who touch them. Finally, 1958's “Monster on the Campus” is a wonderfully goofy extravaganza in which dopey college professor Arthur Franz inadvertently spills some blood from a prehistoric fish into his pipe tobacco and turns into a prehistoric creature after smoking the mixture. As dumb as it sounds, this last title is a hugely entertaining slice of B-movie cheese and if you look hard enough, some of you might see enough parallels between it and the trippy 1980 epic “Altered States” to suspect that Paddy Chayefsky may have been a Creature Feature viewer himself.
THE BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION: A Universal Home Entertainment release. $29.98.
INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES: THE COMPLETE MOVIE COLLECTION: A Universal Home Entertainment release. $29.98
THE CLASSIC SCI-FI ULTIMATE COLLECTION: A Universal Home Entertainment release. $29.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
10th AND WOLF (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $27.98): Okay, you say that this is a direct-to-video film in which a tough loner returns to his hometown to tangle with the mob goons who run the place and drove him away in the first place, it stars the likes of James Marsden and Giovanni Ribisi and it was co-written and directed by Bobby Moresco, the co-writer of “Crash”? Well, I think we can give it a pass and–what? The female lead is none other than the always delightful and ever-fetching Piper Perabo? Crap, I guess I’ll have to check it out after all.
BACKDRAFT–SPECIAL EDITION (Universal Home Video. $19.98): The “Ladder 49" of its day, Ron Howard’s 1991 firefighter epic more than its share of flaws–an overextended running time, one-dimensional characters and the single dullest performance that Jennifer Jason Leigh has ever given–but has enough pluses–namely some still-impressive fire stunts and a nice central performance from the ever-reliable Kurt Russell–to make it sort of worth watching.
GREASE–ROCKIN RYDELL EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Hard as it may be to believe, this 1978 adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical–an homage to the 1950's that taught generations of girls that the best way to win your true love’s heart is to dress and act like a skank–is still the most financially successful movie musical of all time. Frankly, I still don’t get it but the millions that do will be happy to see that this re-release, enclosed in a faux-leather jacket, contains a dishy commentary from director Randall Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch (who would go on to direct “Grease 2"), footage from the 1978 premiere and interviews with the stars filmed to promote the previous DVD edition.
HARD CANDY (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $27.98): For nearly two-thirds of its running time, this provocative looks like it might be the rare independent film to live up to its advanced buzz. After all, it contains a provocative premise–a 32-year-old photographer (Patrick Wilson) brings a 14-year-old girl (Ellen Page) he met over the Internet back to his isolated house for unsavory reasons, only to discover that she has an unexpected agenda of her own–two stellar performances from the leads and a tense, well-written screenplay from . Unfortunately, at a certain point the entire thing dive-bombs into implausibility so quickly and completely that it completely erases all the good will that it had been building up to that point. Nevertheless, it was hailed by many as a dramatic powerhouse, though I suspect that a second viewing, which allows those implausibilities to come to the forefront, will cause many of its proponents to rethink their positions.
LOVERBOY (Universal Home Entertainment. $27.98): This barely-released oddity asks us to spend 84 minutes following the misadventures of one of the creepiest and most decidedly unpleasant characters to ever appear on the silver screen–that would be Emily (Kyra Sedgwick), a woman whose overly possessive approach to raising her young son (Dominic Scott Kay) threatens to destroy both the two of them and anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. That isn’t necessarily a bad idea for a movie but it is one that requires a certain delicacy of touch in order to pull it off–ideally, we should only gradually become aware that something is decidedly not right with this woman as her attempts to provide the caring childhood she was denied go horribly wrong. Unfortunately, Kevin Bacon, making his feature directorial debut, never manages to find the proper tone for the material and tips his hand way too early that things are going to end in a particularly hideous manner and the only suspense comes from guessing how many body bags will be involved. It’s a shame because the film was clearly a labor of love for Bacon and Sedgwick (not to mention Oliver Platt, Matt Dillon, Marisa Tomei and Sandra Bullock, all of whom make key appearances) and their efforts are sincere enough to make me wish that I liked the end results far more than I actually did. In the end, “Loverboy” turns out to be little more than “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” without the whimsy.
MY NAME IS EARL: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): The best stache on television, the Reynolds-like wonder attached to the upper lip of star Jason Lee, can now be worshiped properly in all its digital glory on in this box set containing the first season of the hilarious sitcom about a white-trash loser who decides to right the various wrongs that he has done to others over the years in an effort to build up his good karma.
THE PROPOSITION (First Look Pictures. $26.99): Yeah, I realize that this Australian western, in which Guy Pearce is forced to bring in his own brother, criminal Danny Huston, in order to save the neck of his other brother, is dark and violent and moody and all that. However, why waste two hours watching what is essentially a rehash of Sam Peckinpah’s classic “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” when you can rent “Pat Garrett” itself and see what a real dark, violent and moody Western looks like.
STAY ALIVE (Touchstone Home Video. $29.99): Ripping off everything from “Tron” to “The Ring,” this is an astoundingly stupid and pointless stab at teen-oriented horror in other words, people are dispatched in gruesome ways that we never actually get to see in order to preserve the all-important PG-13 rating in theaters and inspire the “Unrated” DVD release. The film opens as a dopey kid dies after being killed off in a mysterious video game loosely based on real-life monster Countess Elizabeth Bathroy (if you see the film and Google her to learn of her misdeeds, you will no doubt be surprised to discover that she was based in seventeenth-century Hungary, and not New Orleans) and his pals (including Jon Foster, Samaire Armstrong, Sophia Bush and Frankie Muniz, whose awkward growth spurt is perhaps the scariest thing here) decided to play for themselves until they start getting bumped off in the same manner that they do in the game. In the lone camp highlight, a guy gets run over, I kid you not, by a horse-drawn carriage–an event that leads to the immortal line from his grieving sister, “Somebody ran my brother down with a horse-drawn carriage. I’m gonna find out who did it and hurt them!”
STICK IT (Touchstone Home Video. $29.99): For those of you who simply can’t wait for the surprise hit “Step Up” to hit DVD, you can tide yourselves over with this virtually identical Disney film in which a sullen teen rebel (Missy Peregrym) runs afoul of the law and is sentenced to a gymnastics camp run by Jeff Bridges (who has never looked more embarrassed in his entire career and yes, I have seen “Kiss Me Goodbye,” the remake of “The Vanishing” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” Unless you are a 12-year-old girl or can’t get enough of the sight of hot babes in skimpy leotards slamming into parallel bars, this one is virtually unwatchable.
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originally posted: 09/22/06 14:14:05
last updated: 09/30/06 07:25:54