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DVD Reviews for 6/23: Hippies, Tramps and Satan!

by Peter Sobczynsk1

In which your faithful critic tears himself away from the new Nelly Furtado CD (and at this point, he would be perfectly content with just watching the "Promiscuous" video until "Miami Vice" comes out and calling it a summer) to examine a lot of Krypton-based releases, a pointless direct-to-video sequel and an even-more-pointless remake while hailing the long-awaited release of "Super Karate Monkey Death Car!"

It is often said that if you are an ambitious young filmmaker attempting to make your first mark in the industry, the best way to go about it is to scrape together a few bucks and make a low-budget horror film–if it turns out to be good or even great, it can make a huge profit and launch careers and if it turns out to be awful, there is still a large enough audience out there ravenous for any such genre offering that it will most likely make some money as long as it features 80-odd minutes of pretty girls screaming and monsters or madman attacking and as long as it is more-or-less in focus throughout. In the past, directors as varied as Wes Craven (“The Last House on the Left”), George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”), John Carpenter (“Dark Star”), Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”), Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) and John Landis (“Schlock”) all kicked their careers off with cheap genre films that caught on with the public and became cult favorites. Although perhaps not as well-known as those titles (possibly because of the difficulty of finding a decent video copy over the last couple of decades) was the ultra-cheap 1970 monster movie “Equinox,” a silly but thoroughly entertaining little film that has become a fan favorite thanks to the special effects contributions of a then 17-year-old Dennis Muren, who would later go on to revolutionize the film industry with his contributions to such works as “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park” and “War of the Worlds.”

“Equinox” tells the story of four young dopes (Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher and Frank Bonner–the latter being the only recognizable face as he went on to play Herb Tarlek on the late, great “WKRP in Cincinnati”) as they venture off into some remote woods to find the cabin of a professor who has discovered a copy of the Necronomicon–a demonic tome bound in human flesh that can summon monsters, raise the dead and other such fun stuff. Needless to say, the power of the book is unleashed and the quartet is besieged by such things as a blue-skinned giant, an enormous gorilla and a mysterious park ranger (Jack Woods) who wants the book for himself. Of course, the kids never do the sensible thing–which would be to just leave the area–and they find themselves either attacked or possessed by various demons until only one seems to get away. Of course, that leads up to both a final twist and an end title card that reads “THE END?”

Aside from the unmistakable parallels between this film and Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” films, “Equinox” is pretty much a standard-issue low-budget monster movie that is chock-full of faulty plotting, cheesy dialogue and performances that range from half-baked to over-the-top. However, the innocence and straightforwardness of the film plays today as a welcome relief from the more self-aware attitude taken by contemporary horror. However, what really drives the film–the reason why we are discussing it today–are the impressive special effects contributions from Muren, Jim Danforth and Dave Allen. Of course, the stop-motion animation effects never look especially realistic but they are actually fairly impressive, especially when you consider how little money the filmmakers had with which to achieve them. More importantly, you can instinctively sense by watching these effects that they were designed and implemented by real people who were attempting (and mostly succeeding) at pulling off little visual miracles by using inspiration to maximize the few resources on hand. After sitting through endless big-budget films filled with extensive effects sequences that are extravagant yet oddly sterile, the low-tech wonders here seem more impressive today than ever.

Although it may seem odd that Criterion, the DVD label that tends to focus on the great achievements of world cinema, would choose “Equinox” as a candidate for their line (although the label has, in the past, offered such titles as “Carnival of Souls,” “Fiend Without a Face” and “The Blob”), they have responded with a two-disc package that will seem like a dream come true for members of the film’s cult audience. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it cost more to produce this disc than it did to produce the actual film.) The first disc contains two different versions of the film–the original 1967 version, known as “The Equinox . . . A Journey Into the Supernatural” that Muren and co-director Mark McGee completed and eventually sold to producer/distributor Jack H. Harris (best known as the man behind the original “The Blob”) and the 1970 theatrical release, for which Harris hired Jack Woods to add 11 minutes to the running time by reshooting some material and adding a few new scenes to flesh out the story. Both versions feature a commentary track–the 1967 cut has Muren, McGee and Danforth offer a lighthearted recollection of the production while lightly mocking some of the film’s dramatic shortcomings while the 1970 version has Harris and Woods proudly congratulating themselves on their improvements and praising every aspect of the film without the slightest amount of irony. The second disc concentrates on the visual effects work and includes deleted scenes and outtakes from the 1967 version, some fascinating test footage of the stop-motion effects and a tribute to the late stop-motion whiz David Allen that includes the animated fairy tale “The Magic Treasure” and a still-impressive Volkswagen commercial featuring a pretty convincing recreation of King Kong atop the Empire State Building.

Other features include “Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell,” a silent short from 1972 featuring contributions from most of the “Equinox” crew, interviews with Muren and cast members Bonner, Hewitt and James Duron and an extensive collection of trailers, commercials, production still and promotional materials. Inside, the collector’s booklet includes a brief essay from George Lucas that lavishes praise on Muren and the “invaluable contributions to my films and to Industrial Light & Magic–I wonder how long it was after he wrote that when he decided to sell off the practical effects department of ILM in order to concentrate solely on digital effects, a move that all but ensures the death of the very art form that the “Equinox” DVD celebrates.

THE EQUINOX . . . A JOURNEY INTO THE SUPERNATURAL: Written by Mark McGee. Directed by Dennis Muren and Mark McGee. Starring Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Snider and Fritz Leiber. 1967. Unrated. 71 Minutes.

EQUINOX: Written and directed by Jack Woods. Starring Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Snider, Jack Woods and Fritz Leiber. 1970. Unrated. 82 minutes.

A Criterion Collection release. $39.95


THE CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION: VOLUME 1 (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98): If you thought that watching Swedish-born Warner Oland portraying the wise and inscrutable Asian detective was odd and disconcerting, how would you feel about the sight of the character being played by a Mexican actor? You can judge for yourself with this collection of titles from the long-running series that includes four well-known titles–“Charlie Chan in London,” “Charlie Chan in Paris,” “Charlie Chan in Egypt” and “Charlie Chan in Shanghai”–and the 1931 rarity “Eran Trace,” a Spanish-language version of the now-lost “Charlie Chan Carries On” that was shot for foreign audiences (a common practice in the days before dubbing) and now stands as the earliest surviving film of the entire series. Better still, these are the restored versions that Fox cleaned up to show on cable a few years ago until they bowed to protestors and put them on the shelf.

THE CLARK GABLE SIGNATURE COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Another week, another exemplary box set from the Warner Brothers catalogue. This time, the legendary Clark Gable is the subject of a set that includes six feature films (1933's “Dancing Lady,” 1935's “China Seas,” 1936's “San Francisco” and “Wife vs. Secretary,” 1940's “Boom Town” and 1953's “Mogambo”), a full-length documentary (made for TCM and narrated by Liam Neeson) and a host of cartoons, short subject and assorted other bonus features.

EIGHT BELOW (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Rent this contemporary attempt by Disney to revive their old “Tru-Life Adventures” format and you’ll get the chance to see Paul Walker be outacted by both a group of sled dogs (whose adventures trying to survive after being left for dead in the Antarctic form the basis of the film) and giant piles of snow. Co-starring Moon Bloodgood, which I mention only because there are few names out there more fun to write than “Moon Bloodgood.”

THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT (Warner Home Video. $19.98): This 1971 gangster farce, based on a book by Jimmy Breslin, was pretty much written off as a failure when it was released and the ensuing 35 years have not been especially kind to it. The only real item of interest–and it is clearly the one that Warners is banking on to drive sales–is that it features Robert DeNiro in a supporting role filmed a couple of years before his “Mean Streets” breakdown. Interestingly, he was a replacement for another actor who was hired who soon left the project for another gangster-related film–the actor was Al Pacino and the film was “The Godfather.” (That factoid, by the way, is more interesting than anything in the film.)

THE HILLS HAVE EYES (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although not quite as detestable as his previous effort, the abysmal slasher film “Haute Tension,” Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s grueling 1977 cult favorite (in which a typical nuclear family is beset in the desert by a throughly atypical and literally family of mutants) was little more than 90 minutes of stylishly-shot sadism with plenty of gore but little in the way of a point.

I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS (Warner Home Video. $19.98): In one of the better performances of his career–one that didn’t rely entirely on slapstick or outrageous disguises–Peter Sellers plays a straight-laced lawyer on the verge of middle age and marriage who meets a sexy hippie (Leigh-Taylor Young) and decides to take up the lifestyle, only to discover that it isn’t really his cup of tea. This 1968 film obviously a little dated today but most of the humor still holds up pretty well.

I’M GOING TO TELL YOU A SECRET (Warner Brothers Music. $29.98): Though it has been packaged to look like a concert video of Madonna’s 2004 “Re-Invention” tour, the DVD portion of this CD/DVD combo is actually a documentary film shot during the tour in which the one-time Material Girl contemplates spiritual issues and occasionally knocks out a tune or two. Not without interest but those looking for another “Truth or Dare” are liable to come away a little disappointed. (The CD contains live recordings of some of the songs from the tour–why not a complete show?–so for those of you who have been waiting for a live version of “Die Another Day,” your ordeal is over.)

LADY AND THE TRAMP II (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): From the good people who brought you “The Lion King 1 ½,” “Bambi II” and “Chicken Little” comes yet another direct-to-video sequel that no one that I know of was especially clamoring for. Get it before it goes back into the vault with the original version of “Song of the South” that Walt liked to show at parties.

LOOK–UP IN THE SKY! (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Although it doesn’t go into quite as much detail regarding the production of the feature films as one might hope (presumably because that material is being saved for that mega-sized box set due later this year), this documentary on the history of Superman (directed by Kevin Burns) is a pretty interesting look at the evolution of the character from his early days in the funnies to his current incarnation in “Superman Returns.” The absolutely surreal clip from the failed “Superpup” pilot (an attempt to continue the franchise after the death of George Reeves by recasting the roles with midgets in dog suits) alone makes this disc worth a purchase for any Superman fan. This is just part of a slew of “Superman”-related titles debuting this week–other releases include “The Adventures of Superman: The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons” (the latest collection of episodes from the George Reeves TV series and the first that were broadcast in color), the animated shows “Justice League: Season Two,” “Superman-The Animated Series: Volume 3" and “Krypto: The Superdog,” “Superboy: The Complete First Season” (a cheap and dismal 1980's syndicated series) and “Lois & Clark–The New Adventures of Superman: The Complete Third Season.”

THE LOVED ONE (Warner Home Video. $19.98): When it was originally released in 1965, this jet-black satire of American culture in general and the funeral industry in particular (based on the Evelyn Waugh novel), it billed itself as “the film to offend everyone” and it is a tribute to the efforts of screenwriters Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood and the all-star cast (including Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters in a dual role, Milton Berle, Robert Morley and unforgettable appearances by Rod Steiger and Liberace) that it still lives up to that promise after more than 40 years. Not for everyone but those with a taste for dark humor should check this out as soon as possible.

NATE AND HAYES (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): Okay, so the desire to get as many pirate-related films on DVD shelves to cash in on the anticipation for “Pirates of the Carribean 2" has grown so great that even this 1983 oddity–a violent swashbuckling romp featuring an unlikely lead performance from Tommy Lee Jones and a script from John Hughes–gets a release and yet, Roman Polanski’s truly bizarre “Pirates” still languishes in home-video limbo? Aaargh!

NEWSRADIO-THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.95): This was the only show to rival “Seinfeld” for the title of Best Sitcom of the 1990's and this particular season was perhaps its most consistently funny–“Super Karate Monkey Death Car” and the exceedingly weird season-ending “Titanic” parody (done mostly because the producers assumed they were being cancelled) are the top picks in an almost flawless collection.

NIGHTWATCH (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Like a Luc Besson film without the lucid screenplay, this deranged Russian vampire film (the first shot in a trilogy) is the kind of visionary epic that manages to dazzle the eye and befuddle the mind in equal measure. Whether you love it or hate it, at least you won’t walk away from it mumbling about how you’ve seen all of that before.

THE OMEN (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98): In order to tie in with the release of the utterly pointless remake, Fox is offering a double-dip of the original 1976 horror semi-classic that contains all the extra features from the first version (the best being a funny commentary with director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird) as well

PETULIA (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Although Warners is marketing this release of Richard Lester’s landmark 1968 film as a groovy comedy, newcomers may be surprised by how dark it truly is. George C. Scott gave one of his best and most restrained performances as an emotionally detached surgeon who, following his divorce, finds himself becoming drawn to a socialite “kook” (Julie Christie in one of her better performances) with some serious problems of her own. Featuring impressive cinematography from Nicolas Roeg, a trippy editing style and a time-capsule look at San Francisco in the late 60's (complete with an appearance by the Grateful Dead), this is one of those rare films that is both a perfect evocation of the era it was produced in while still remaining relevant for contemporary viewers.

SYRIANA (Warner Home Video. $29.98): For those of you who had trouble following the intricacies of Stephen Gaghan’s densely packed observation of the American oil industry and how it affects everyone from an ambitious energy consultant (Matt Damon) to a disaffected Arab (Mazar Munir) to a gone-to-see CIA agent (George Clooney), watching it on DVD will allow you to backtrack whenever things get too confusing.

WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?–SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): No doubt being released to coincide with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” hype surrounding Johnny Depp, this 1993 comedy-drama actually features one of his most atypically normal performances as a young man struggling to live his own life while also caring for his morbidly obese mother and his autistic brother (a key early performance from Leonardo DiCaprio). A strange, funny and touching film that also serves as a reminder of that long-ago time when Lasse Hallstrom was an interesting director instead of the high-class puppet of the Weinsteins that gave us “The Shipping News,” “Chocolat” and “An Unfinished Life.”

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originally posted: 06/23/06 14:44:11
last updated: 07/06/06 19:01:51
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