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DVD Reviews for 9/14: The Price Is Always Right

by Peter Sobczynski

In anticipation of the upcoming holiday, the various studios offer up a ton of horror films for your perusal this week and inadvertently offer a tribute to one of the genre's greatest stars.

As even a cursory glance at this week’s list will reveal, it appears that the studios have decided to take a page from Rob Zombie’s calendar and have decided to begin celebrating Halloween a little early this year with an avalanche of horror-related titles–slasher films, monster movies and ever such television creepfests as “The Addams Family” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” One performer who pops up in a number of said releases is a man whose name is pretty much synonymous with the genre–the late, great Vincent Price. This week sees the release of no fewer than three Price-related DVDs that highlight the delightfully fruity and occasionally frightening presence that made him one of the most beloved actors in the entire history of the horror film.

First up is Fox’s “The Fly Collection,” a four-disc set that kicks off with thee 1958 semi-classic “The Fly,” in which Price played the brother-in-law of a scientist whose experiments in teleporting go horribly wrong when his genetic material becomes spliced with the material belonging to a common housefly that got caught in the machine. Although this is one of those films that plays better in the memory than it does in reality (especially in the wake of David Cronenberg’s stunning 1986 remake), it is still pretty fun to watch today and the justifiably famous finale (“Hellllp Meeeee!”) still packs a surreal punch that doesn’t go away easily. A huge box-office at the time, it immediately inspired “The Return of the Fly,” a sequel that was released one year later and was set 15 years in the future, a time in which Price and the now-grown son of the doomed scientist from the previous installment decide to create their own matter transference device with predictably hideous results for all involved. Price gets a little more to do this time around but it sticks a little too close to the original for comfort and the big variation–that the fly has been deliberately placed into the machine by a crazed assistant as part of an insane murder scheme–is too silly to be believed even in a movie about a half-man/half-fly running amok. By the time that 1965's “Curse of the Fly” came around, Price was under contract to A.I.P and was unable to appear in what would prove to be the final film in the series. This was probably a shrewd move on his part because the resulting film was a “Fly” film without any flies to speak of–instead, it dealt with more members of the same family attempting further teleportation experiments and suffering from hideous physical mutations as a result. While I give the film credit for at least trying to do something different, I have to immediately take away sad credit for the slipshod and terminally dull manner in which it approaches the new material.

By comparison, Price’s 1968 film “The Witchfinder General” was nowhere near as successful with the public as “The Fly” when it was first released–if it was known at all, it was because of the sad fact that director Michael Reeves committed suicide just after its release (though there has always been some doubt about the exact circumstances surrounding his death)–but in subsequent years, its reputation has soared and it is now considered one of his finest films by many of his fans. Essentially a straightforward version of the material that Ken Russell would explore a few years later in “The Devils,” Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a real-life man who exploited the fear, prejudices and religious mania of the people of England in the 1600's by going around from town to town as a self-proclaimed “witchfinder” who, along with his menacing assistant, would uncover “witches” by torturing confessions out of people and execute them for a reasonable fee. (The real Hopkins supposedly executed upwards of 400 alleged witches in a three-year span.) The story turns when he begins torturing yet another victim and a young woman (Hilary Heath) offers herself to him in order to spare the man’s life–he agrees to this but when his partner rapes her while he is away, Hopkins tosses her aside and kills the guy anyway before fleeing town. When her fiancee (Ian Ogilvy) returns and discovers what has happened, he sends her away and begins an obsessive pursuit of Hopkins that ends gruesomely for all involved. This is a seriously dark and depressing drama–a fact that American-International Pictures tried to disguise by retitling it “The Conqueror Worm” in the hopes of convincing potential viewers that it was another campy Edgar Allen Poe film–and much of that is due to the power of Price’s performance. Let’s face it–over the years, the man delivered more than his share of fruity, over-the-top performances but he dials it way down here and the result is one of the great performances in horror film history.

Although sold separately, “The Witchfinder General” can also be found in “The Vincent Price Collection,” a 5-disc set from MGM that is a repackaging of some of their previously issued DVDs. Disc One pairs up “The Abominable Dr. Phibes,” the outrageously campy 1971 black comedy in which he plays a lunatic who avenges the death of his wife by offing the surgeons he holds responsible in ways that suggest the plagues of Egypt (the one involving the locusts is especially nasty), with its less-successful sequel, 1973's “Dr. Phibes Rises Again.” Disc Two offers up a pair of anthology films based on the works of famous authors–1962's “Tales of Terror” offers loose takes on Poe’s “Morella,” “The Black Cat” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” while 1963's “Twice-Told Tales” gives us even looser versions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Heidegger’s Experiment,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The House of the Seven Gables.” Disc Three kicks off with one of Price’s best films, the 1973 Grand Guignol romp “Theater of Blood,” in which he plays a hammy actor who kills off a bunch of critics–who refused to give him their annual prize–by adapting the most infamous death scenes from the works of William Shakespeare (the best one being the grisly take on “Titus Andronicus” involving Robert Morely, his prized pooches and a highly suspect meat pie) and continues with 1974's “Madhouse,” in which he plays a retired horror movie star who return to the limelight is hampered when people around him begin dying in various grisly ways. The final disc in the set offers fans a documentary on Price’s life and career and includes a couple of short featurettes featuring interviews with those who worked with him in the past.

THE FLY COLLECTION: A Fox Home Entertainment release. $39.98.

THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL: Directed by Michael Reeves. Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Heath and Robert Russell. 1968. 86 minutes. Unrated. A MGM Home Entertainment release. $14.98.



THE ADDAMS FAMILY: VOLUME 3 (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.98): The final 21 episodes of the beloved supernatural sitcom contains one of the more intriguing-sounding extras of this week’s avalanche of releases–select-scene commentaries from Thing and Cousin Itt.

AMERICAN CANNIBAL (Lifesize Entertainment. $24.98): In this mockumentary spoofing the current craze for increasingly deranged reality television programming, a couple of writers desperate for success and the promoter behind the Paris Hilton sex tape team up in order to put together a “Survivor”-like show with a twist that is subtly hinted at in the title. On the bright side, the results probably can’t be any more appalling than that “Kid Nation” nonsense.

AWAY FROM HER (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98):In one of the finest performances of her career, Julie Christie stars in this heartbreaking film as one-half of a married couple whose relationship is sadly and cruelly redefined when she is stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease. This acclaimed drama marked the directorial debut of Sarah Polley, the gifted actress who, based on her work here, shows herself to be equally adept behind the camera as she is in front of it.

THE BEAST WITHIN/THE BAT PEOPLE (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Part one of this double-feature is the awesomely tasteless 1982 monster movie in which a woman is raped by a cicada-like creature and gives birth to a son that eventually goes off on its own perverted and gruesome rampage seventeen years later. Part two is a deadly dull 1974 drama (which appeared on “Mystery Science Theater 3000" under the title “It Lives By Night”) about a dopey doctor who gets bitten by a bat on vacation and slowly, very slowly, turns into a half-man/half-bat monster.

BONES–THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98): Everyone’s favorite forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), returns for another season of examining decomposed corpses, solving seemingly unsolvable crimes and bantering with her by-the-book FBI partner (David Boreanz). However, one episode that was pulled from broadcast in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre and never subsequently broadcast–even though it contained a plot line that confused many viewers when it was continued in the next episode to be aired–has apparently not been included in this allegedly “complete” second-season set.

THE BURNING (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): One of the numerous slasher movies to emerge in the wake of the success of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” this 1981 summer camp-based gorefest has seen its reputation increase over the years because of the nasty levels of violence on display (courtesy of makeup maven Tom Savini) and the number of well-known names who were involved with its production–Rick Wakeman did the score, future mogul Harvey Weinstein produced and co-wrote the screenplay and the cast includes the then-unknown likes of Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter.

CHARMED–THE FINAL SEASON (Paramount Home Entertainment. $49.99): Time to shed a tear as this, as the title suggests, is the final season set of the long-running series about a trio of sexy witch siblings locked in eternal battles with both the forces of darkness and the buttons on their blouses. Granted, the tear is not for the loss of the show itself–even at its best, it was rarely anything more than a second-rate riff on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without the wit or emotion–but for the fact that what has proven to be the most alluring series of box-set covers in TV-on-DVD history is coming to an end. For those of you who can tear yourselves away from said cover, this set contains the final 22 episodes as well as some honest-to-goodness bonus features–a blooper reel, a couple of cast-and-crew commentaries and a documentary on the history of the series that includes scenes from the original pilot featuring Lori Rom in the role that would eventually be played by Alyssa Milano. (The fact that I know that is fairly sad–the fact that I actually have a tape of that pilot floating around in my archives somewhere is downright depressing.)

EVEN MONEY (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): Despite a reasonably high-profile cast (including the likes of Forest Whittaker, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammar, Nick Cannon, Carla Gugino and Ray Liotta), this drama about a group of people caught in the throes of gambling addiction was only dribbled out into a few theaters with virtually no publicity earlier this year. Then again, to judge from some of those who did manage to catch it, it doesn’t sound like you are missing much unless you are desperately looking for this generation’s “Fever Pitch” (the Ryan O’Neal version, not the Drew Barrymore one).

FACE/OFF (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Despite one of the most preposterous plots in action film history–a federal agent (John Travolta) and the criminal he has sworn to bring to justice (Nicolas Cage) wind up switching faces as part of an experimental procedure gone horribly wrong and find themselves impersonating each other–John Woo’s third (and to date best) stab at working within the American film industry is still a pretty impressive thriller thanks to Woo’s hyperkinetic visual style and the surprisingly strong and effective performances from Cage and Travolta, both of whom are quite good at suggesting each other’s personalities.

THE FILM CREW: WILD WOMEN OF WONGO (Shout Factory! $19.99): The former “MST3K” gang returns for their latest direct-to-video dissection of another barely remembered cinematic suppository–this one is a silly 1958 epic in which a sexy, all-female tribe on the mysterious island of Wongo discovers that there is a tribe of hunky guys living on the other side. Unfortunately for both of them, the island also contains a tribe of ferocious ape-men who plan on making one of the tribes in question into their sex slaves.

THE FOOD OF THE GODS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Loosely–hell, promiscuously–based on the H.G. Wells story, the 1976 campfest from B-movie favorite Bert I. Gordon (the man behind “The Amazing Colossal Man,” “Earth Vs. The Spider” and “Empire of the Ants,” this nonsensical and ultra-cheap monster movie offers up the sight of such personalities as Marjoe Gortner, Ida Lupino and Ralph Meeker valiantly trying to defend themselves from wasps, chickens and rats that have grown to enormous size after consuming some mysterious glop that has bubbled up from the ground.

FROM BEYOND–UNRATED DIRECTOR’S CUT (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): In this 1986 follow-up to his jaw-dropping gore classic “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon once again returned to the works of H.P. Lovecraft for this outrageously lurid tale of a scientist whose experiments into expanding the human mind via the pineal gland have disturbing and disgusting results for all involved. Not as great as “Re-Animator”–few horror films are–but this is nevertheless a trippy entertainment with plenty of memorable imagery (especially the sight of Barbara Crampton in bondage gear) and gory gags to go around. Originally chopped up by the MPAA in order to receive an R rating and plagued with substandard video presentations ever since, this DVD offers up Gordon’s original cut of the film, a commentary featuring Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna and co-stars Crampton and Jeffrey Combs and a featurette on its convoluted editing history.

GORILLA AT LARGE/MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98):Originally filmed in 3-D, but pretty flat no matter how you see it, “Gorilla at Large” gives us the redoubtable sight of such future luminaries as Anne Bancroft, Cameron Mitchell, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Burr and Lee Marvin in a mystery in which a group of carnival workers are being bumped off one by one–is the killer the carnival’s 1,000-pound gorilla or merely a guy in a gorilla outfit? “Mystery on Monster Island,” on the other hand, is a cheap-jack film, loosely based on a Jules Verne story, about a young man on an around-the-world expedition who finds himself stranded on an island populated with cheesy-looking dinosaurs.

THE GRADUATE–40th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTOR’S EDITION (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.98): Even though I consider generally beloved look at youthful alienation to be one of the most overrated of all the so-called “great” movies–to me, Benjamin Braddock has always struck me as more of a self-absorbed twerp than a confused young man–I may have to check out this 2-disc special edition for the bonus materials contained within–two commentary tracks (one featuring director Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, who collaborated on the excellent commentary for Nichols’ far-more-impressive “Catch-22", and the other featuring co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross), documentaries on the making of the film and its impact on future filmmakers and a CD sampler featuring some of the songs from the famous Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack.

GREY’S ANATOMY–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $59.99): If you hate this ridiculously popular soap opera about the adventures of a slutty, self-absorbed aspiring doctor endlessly ruminating on her personal problems while occasionally taking a break to help save someone else’s life, there is nothing on display here that will persuade you that you are wrong. If you adore it, however, you will no doubt adore this seven-disc set featuring some extended episodes, audio commentaries, deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes tour with the guy who once starred in “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Either way, if you are looking for any dirt surrounding the off-screen antics of former co-star Isaiah Washington, you will sadly be looking in vain.

THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN/THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.98): As the two features here prove conclusively, you just can’t trust any old people willing to leave you lots of money in their wills. In the first feature, a rich man’s heirs travel to his creepy mansion for the reading of his will, only to be picked off one by one by a mysterious killer. In the latter, once derisively dubbed “Rosemary’s Piano” by filmmaker Philip Kaufman, Alan Alda plays a former piano player who is befriended by a rich and famous musician (Curt Jurgens) who wants to leave him and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) all of his money–it turns out, of course, that their benefactor is really a Satanist who wants to take over Alda’s body as part of a plan to live forever.

MASADA–THE COMPLETE EPIC MINI-SERIES (Koch Vision. $29.98): An enormously popular hit when it was first broadcast in 1981, this four-part miniseries chronicles the two-year-long last stand of a thousand Jewish people in the mountains of Masada against an onslaught of Roman soldiers and features Peter O’Toole as the leader of the Roman armies, Peter Strauss as the leader of the Jews and Barbara Carrera as the kind of dame that you wouldn’t mind being stranded in the mountains with for a couple of years.

THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES/THE BEAST WITH 1,000,000 EYES (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Low-budget monsters wreak havoc on a variety of B-level performers in these two 50's-era programmers. The Phantom turns out to be ordinary ocean life that has been horribly mutated by a mysterious radioactive rock while the Beast is an alien who takes over the minds of various humans and animals and uses them to do its hideous bidding. (For more information on “The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes,” please consult my brilliant review of “I Know Who Killed Me” elsewhere on this site.)

PRIVATE PROPERTY (New Yorker Video. $29.95): The great Isabelle Huppert returns in this dark drama in which she plays a divorcee who is ready to sell the house and begin a new life with her brand-new lover, news which doesn’t go over very well with her twin sons and which leads to no small amount of misery and heartbreak for all involved.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA/THE VAMPIRE (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Unless you are a stone-cold bloodsucker buff, you can probably skip over these two silly vampire films from the 1950's that tried to cash in on the popularity of the Hammer Dracula films. The former has Count Dracula killing a man on a train from Transylvania, stealing his identity and going to California to stay with the deceased man’s family, who find his habit of sleeping all day and staying out all night a tad disconcerting. The latter is actually more of a Jekyll & Hyde story than anything else and tells the tragic story of a scientist who discovers too late that the only thing dumber than making a medication out of the blood of vampire bats is to inadvertently take the pills yourself.

THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: COLLECTOR’S EDITION [MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): Already released in a perfectly adequate version a few years ago, Dan O’Bannon’s reasonably funny and reasonably gory punk rock horror-comedy (which claimed to tell the real story behind what eventually became “Night of the Living Dead”) gets the double-dip treatment with a new edition that ports over the extras from the first version (chiefly a commentary from O’Bannon and production designer William Stout) with such new features as a “cast, crew and undead” commentary track, a look at 1980's-era horror hosted by Elvira and “zombie subtitles.”

SNOOP DOGG’S HOOD OF HORROR (Xenon Video. $26.98){/i}: Instead of giving us the eagerly-awaited “Bones II” (well, I’m looking forward to it at least), everyone’s favorite pot-addled rapper chose to return to the world of horror cinema with a low-budget anthology film in which a young woman is granted super powers by a local voodoo priest in order to clean up the ghetto, a redneck who moves in with a group of Vietnam vets in order to claim his inheritance and a rap star who shot to fame through dubious methods deals with the return of his former partner from the grave.

SNOW CAKE (IFC Films $19.95)
:Barely released in theaters, this is a low-key drama about a recently-released prisoner (Alan Rickman) who picks up a young hitchhiker and then gets involved in an auto accident that kills his passenger–before long, he finds himself involved with both the late girl’s autistic mother (Sigourney Weaver) and her overly nurturing next-door neighbor (Carrie-Anne Moss).

TALES FROM THE CRYPT/VAULT OF HORROR (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.98): If “Snoop Dogg’s Hood Of Horror” puts you in the mood for a good horror anthology film, these two efforts from England’s Amicus Studios (the chief rival to Hammer) should do the trick. The former is based on the famed E.C. comic book and is perhaps best-known for the Yuletide tale in which the nasty Joan Collins kills her husband on Christmas Eve and then finds herself stalked by a murderous Santa Claus who has apparently taken his “naughty” list to heart. The latter gives us five tales involving towns populated entirely by vampires, a voodoo-obsessed painter who is granted the power to make anything that he paints come true and a magician who kills to discover the secret to an Indian rope trick, only to discover that there is more to the “rope” than meets the eye.

TOM & JERRY: VOLUME 3 (Warner Home Video. $26.98): In the last couple of years, Warner Home Video have released collections of Looney Tunes and Popeye cartoons that have featured questionable material–mostly racial in nature–along with disclaimers stating that while they were the product of a different time, to censor or eliminate those particular cartoons would be wrong. However, they can’t seem to do the same for their collections featuring the beloved cat & mouse duo–previous collections have featured recut and redubbed prints and this one, which once purported to include the remaining T&J cartoons from original creator William Hannah & Joseph Barbara, has simply eliminated two shorts, “Mouse Cleaning” and “Casanova Cat,” from the collection altogether. As a result, while this set may be perfectly fine for parents looking for something to keep the kids quiet, true animation buff are advised to give it a pass until they accord the series the same respect that they gave to other controversial cartoons in their holdings.

WELCOME TO THE GRINDHOUSE: DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE/PRIME EVIL and MALIBU HIGH/TRIP WITH THE TEACHER (BCI/Eclipse. $12.98 each): Another pair of double-feature discs from BCI/Eclipse hoping to recreate the grindhouse experience for those who were there to experience it first-hand as well as for those who only began to hear about such things in the promotional buildup for “Grindhouse.” The first set is a horror twofer that kicks off with a not-uninteresting 1980 slasher film in which a deeply disturbed and deeply misogynist Vietnam vet (the late Nicholas Worth in an undeniably intense performance) who goes around strangling scantily-clad women and then brags about his crimes on a call-in radio show and concludes with a bit of 1988 silliness, directed by noted sleaze auteur Roberta Findlay (“Snuff”), about a group of devil-worshiping monks trolling for human sacrifices in New York City. The second set is straight-up sexploitation with a scholastic bent–“Malibu High” is a weird 1979 film about a high-school girl who copes with being dumped by her boyfriend by first seducing her teachers and then becoming involved with drugs, prostitution and murder while “Trip With The Teacher” (1975) tells the “harrowing story” of a comely teacher and her comelier students who are harassed by a group of bikers (led by future smut auteur Zalman King) when their bus breaks down in the middle of the deset.

YONGARY, MONSTER FROM THE DEEP/KONGA (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): This double-bill offers up a pair of goofball monster mashes for your amusement. “Yongary” gives us the unforgettable sight of a giant, gasoline-eating monster to run roughshod over Korea in what might have been described as “The Host” of its day if people in 1967 had heard of “The Host.” 1961's “Konga,” on the other hand, is a silly “King Kong” knock-off in which mad scientist Michael Gough uses a secret growth formula to grow a baby chimp into a monster capable of destroying his enemies–sadly, this crackerjack plot doesn’t go quite as planned and the beast runs roughshod over London.

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originally posted: 09/14/07 14:29:03
last updated: 09/16/07 00:14:36
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