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DVD Reviews For 7/31: From Bad to Baaaaaaa.

by Peter Sobczynski

This week’s selection include the long-overdue arrival of a couple of classics, some unnecessary sequels and direct-to-video junk and one love story that is bound to make you say “Ewe!”

As I presumed at times to be someone who knows what he is talking about when it comes to the world of cinema, I am occasionally asked by people about what I think is the scariest movie ever made. Almost inevitably, I duck the question by replying “Runaway Bride.” (One time, however, I was asked that question while sitting with the director and co-star of “Runaway Bride” and I did what any fearless young punk in my position would have done--I choked and replied “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” Although part of this is because I just want to be a smartass for no particular reason to someone who has asked me a legitimate question, most of it is because I am never entirely sure what they are asking for--my thoughts on my favorite horror films or the films that have contained the most unnerving moments. Oddly enough, I have found that the two are not always the same. For example, I happen to believe that Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is without a doubt the finest horror film ever made--elegantly constructed, brilliantly acted and intelligently conceived--but at the same time, I have never found it particularly frightening in the sense that I have ever jumped out of my seat while watching it. On the other hand, there are any number of movies that I can think of that I wouldn’t list as being among the great horror films of all time (or even as horror movies period) that have nevertheless provided incredible amounts of fear and tension--things like “Inland Empire” and “Funny Games” spring to mind and I once recall seeing “The Blair Witch Project” about four months before its release in a Brew&View theater where it so effectively gripped the audience in attendance that they were actually shushing the bartenders. There are very few films to combine elegance with nerve-wracking terror--the two generally cancel each other out--but one that certainly managed to unite the two was Roman Polanski’s 1965 masterpiece “Repulsion,” finally available on DVD and Blu-ray this week from Criterion. From a cinematic standpoint, it is as elegantly constructed of a film as one could possibly hope for and at the same time, it contains scenes and images so unnerving to even the most jaded horror buffs that they still retain the power to shock even though lesser filmmakers have been ripping them off for nearly 45 years.

Catherine Deneuve (then pretty much an unknown, although she did appear in the musical cult classic “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” a year earlier) stars as Carol, a Belgian woman living in London with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) while working as a manicurist. Despite being young, beautiful and having the attentions of genuinely nice and attentive boyfriend Colin (John Fraser), Carol is nevertheless repulsed by all forms of sexuality, a condition exacerbated by the constant presence of her sister’s married lover, Michael (Ian Hendry), a man who both disgusts and fascinates her. Outwardly, Carol seems normal enough--when she thinks that every male is leering at her, no one thinks much of it because of her incredible beauty--but there are cracks behind her lovely façade that become more and more obvious when Michael and Helen go away for an Italian vacation and leave her alone. Unable to cope with the outside world, she quits her job and completely barricades herself inside the apartment and when she bears the brunt of a nasty phone call from Michael’s wife that was meant for Helen, she yanks out the phone and completely cuts herself off. Nevertheless, her delusions become increasing lurid and violent and completely drive her around the bend, a condition symbolized by an uncooked rabbit left to rot on a plate in the kitchen. After about a week or so, she finally gets a couple of visitors--Colin, who is both concerned that he hasn’t seen her for a week and suspicious that all may not be right with her, and the landlord, who mistakenly believes that she is coming on to him--and without going into too much detail, let us just say that things don’t go very well for either of them. This all sets up a climax that is both blood curdling and strangely moving and which ends on one of the creepiest images in the history of horror cinema--a shot that quietly and memorably suggests that Carol’s problems have been with her longer than anyone might have suspected.

Essentially conceived by Polanski, along with co-writer Gerard Brach--the first of what would prove to be nine collaborations over the next three decades--as an easy-to-produce horror knockoff in the vein of “Psycho” after finding no success at selling their screenplay for the dark comedy “Cul-de-Sac” (which they would be able to make in the wake of the success of this film), “Repulsion” was only his second feature film (following his controversial 1962 debut “Knife in the Water”) but anyone watching the film today would never be able to detect either the haste with which it was put together or the relative inexperience of its director. One of the truly fascinating things about the film as a whole is the way that it is less interested in explaining the nuts and bolts of the madness enveloping Carol (although it supplies plenty of clues for viewers to contemplate later on) as it is in forcing us to experience that deterioration through her eyes. This is achieved through the stunning camerawork from Gilbert Taylor (who had just finished a little film called “Dr. Strangelove” when he signed on) that so effectively smudges the line between fantasy and reality that it soon becomes impossible to tell between the two until it is too late, the brilliant performance from Deneuve (it still remains one of the finest of her long career) and, most importantly, the knockout contributions from Polanski. Throughout his career, he would often dabble in the horror genre--sometimes in a straightforward manner (“Rosemary’s Baby”), sometimes ironically (“The Fearless Vampire Killers,” “The Tenant” and “The Ninth Gate”) and sometimes reflected through another type of storytelling (“MacBeth,” “The Pianist”)-- but never with the precision and effectiveness that he demonstrated here. Without ever going too far over-the-top, he consistently ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree--so much so, in fact, that in terms of sheer suspense, it still has the power to unnerve you no matter how many times you may have seen it over the years. At the same time, Polanski, a man who has often unfairly been considered a cold and unemotional filmmaker, demonstrates an intriguing approach towards Carol that also helps to make the film more than just a standard genre exercise--as Hitchcock did with Norman Bates, he takes the time to allow us to see her as more than just a nutcase and, as a result, we feel an unusual level of sympathy to her that makes her subsequent acts all the more tragic and horrifying.

For a long time, American fans of “Repulsion” have been waiting patiently for a decent DVD of the film to finally arrive--the closest to emerge during that time was a cheapo release of dubious quality and legality notable only for hilariously misleading cover art that tried to make it look like a wacky 60’s-era sex comedy, of all things. After years of rumors, Criterion has finally given it a proper release and while it is mostly a port of their 1995 laserdisc edition, albeit with greatly improved picture and sound, that isn’t too much of a disappoint since that laserdisc was one of their finest achievements in that format. The chief attraction is a fascinating commentary track from Polanski (with the exception of “The Ninth Gate,” I believe it is the only one that he has done) and Deneuve discussing the tensions of making the film and its lasting impact--typically, Polanski seems less than thrilled with it today and goes so far as to mock certain interpretations that have sprung up over the years. Next up is a 1964 television documentary shot during the film’s production that offers viewers a rare and valuable glimpse of Polanski and Deneuve at work. The newest extra is “A British Horror Film,” an intriguing 2003 documentary on the history of “Repulsion’ prepared for the film’s DVD release overseas that features more recent interviews with Polanski, Gilbert Taylor and producer Gene Gutowski that shed additional light on the subject. Rounding out the package are a pair of trailers and a booklet with an essay by film scholar Bill Horrigan.

Written by Roman Polanski & Gerard Brach. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux and Patrick Wymark. 1965. 105 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.


THE 10th VICTIM (Blue Underground. $14.95): In this bizarre 1965 Italian sci-fi satire (which would later influence the likes of “The Running Man” and “Series 7”), the most popular show on television is one in which assassins attempt to kill each other before the eyes of a rapt viewing public and the two most popular participants (Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress) alternately try to seduce and slay each other. The film is kind of silly and never really completely exploit’s the potential of the material (now this is a film ripe for a remake) but it contains enough memorable sights (especially Andress in her bullet-firing bra) to make it worth a look.

AN AMERICAN AFFAIR (Universal Home Entertainment. $24.98): In this coming-of-age tale, a horny young adolescent boy (Cameron Bright) becomes infatuated with his sexy new neighbor (Gretchen Mol) and begins spying on her and the illicit affair that she is conducting from her apartment after hours. Complicating matters slightly is the fact that the story is set in Washington D.C. in 1963 and the other person is none other than JFK.

ANGEL OF DEATH (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In this direct-to-video thriller, a remorseless assassin has a change of heart--the kind inspired by a knife wound to the head that unleashes haunting memories of those she has killed--and decides to get out of the business for good, but not before killing her former employers before they can do the same to her. What makes this sound slightly more interesting than the usual straight-to-video nonsense is that the anti-heroine is played by none other than Zoe Bell, last seen strapped to the hood of a speeding car in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.”

ANIMALDA (Synapse Entertainment. $29.95): In this decidedly demented black comedy from Argentina, an unhappily married man visits his family’s vacation ranch, falls in love with someone else and goes to murderous ends to maintain his secret relationship by killing anyone who gets in his way and grinding their bodies up into food for his new lover. Oh wait, I forgot--the object of his affection is a sheep. Trust me, it is more plausible and compelling than anything you are going to see in that “The Ugly Truth” nonsense and the sheep is far more likable than Katherine Heigl is.

THE BAD LIEUTENANT SPECIAL EDITION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98): Cult filmmaker Abel Ferrara (“Ms. .45,” “King of New York”) has made plenty of off-the-wall films throughout his career but none to date have topped his incredibly intense 1992 drama following a few days in the life of degenerate cop (Harvey Keitel in one of his most fearless performances) searching for redemption for a multitude of sins (including one of the most infamous traffic stops in film history) and the punks responsible for the rape of a nun who, to his disbelief, is inclined to forgive her attackers.

BECOMING CHARLEY CHASE (VCI Entertainment. $39.99): Although his name may not be as recognizable to moviegoers today as such contemporaries as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase was enormously influential in the development of screen comedy from knockabout slapstick to a more sophisticated approach through his work as a writer, director and performer. This 4-disc set includes 40 shorts from 1915-1925 showing off his various talents and how they evolved over time and includes commentaries from film historians and a retrospective documentary on the man and his work.

DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Even though it has only been a couple of months since I saw this floppo live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese anime franchise during its exceedingly brief theatrical run, it proved to be so unmemorable that when I sat down to write this particular capsule, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it. Looking back on my review, I see that I compared the film as a whole unfavorably to “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” and suggested that the fight choreography on display in the “Hannah Montana” movie was better. Sounds about right to me.

FAST & FURIOUS (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): I don’t know about fast, but I for one was certainly furious when I watched the latest installment of the ridiculously popular and enduring gearhead franchise--a film hyped almost exclusively on the concept that all the stars from the original (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez) were reuniting--and discovered that not only did one of them get killed off in the opening reel before any on-screen reunion, it was the only one with any real personality who got knocked off. Other stuff happened after that, of course, but I was so irritated by this development that I barely noticed any of it.

THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In this silly direct-to-video action epic borrowing from any number of other and better films that you may have seen over the years, Rick Yune plays a guy who has been raised since childhood by a hired killed (Keith David) to become a deadly assassin following the murder of his parents. Complications arise when his latest target turns out to be a sexy pop singer (Dania Ramirez)--not only is she too pretty to kill, her bodyguard turns out to be the killer’s adopted brother.

THE MAFIA (A&E Home Video. $34.95): Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to sit down and watch more than 10 hours of documentaries chronicling the history of organized crime in America from the early days of Prohibition and Al Capone to the Gottis and Gambinos. Happily, A&E has made that humble dream come true with this 4-disc set doing just that with documentaries looking at everything from people like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky to the connections between the Mob and the Kennedys. Other TV-related DVDs arriving this week include “Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5” (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98), “Charles in Charge: Season 5 (Arts Alliance America. $29.99), “Early Edition: The Second Season” (CBS DVD. $45.95), “The Judy Garland Show, Volume 1” (Infinity Entertainment. $19.98), “Knight Rider-Season One” (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98), “Life on Mars: Series 1 (U.K.)” (Acorn Media. $59.99) and “The Middleman: The Complete Series” (Shout! Factory. $39.99).

MISS MARCH (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): If recent films like “Sex Drive” and “Fired Up” haven’t satisfied your craving for cynically conceived and atrociously executed teen sex comedies that make you long for the days of such comparatively refined works as “Joysticks” (which at least had Joe Don Baker) or “Porky’s Revenge” (which at least had a pretty incredible soundtrack), then you might get a kick out of this film about a dork who knocks himself into a coma just before losing his virginity to the girl of his dreams, wakes up to discover that she is now a “Playboy” centerfold (one who reveals less than one of her Fifties counterparts) and makes a pilgrimage with his wacky best friend to the Playboy Mansion to win her back. Look, if you want to see a “Playboy”-related movie tonight, skip this one just as decisively as you clearly did when it briefly played in theaters this spring and watch “The House Bunny,” a movie that contains more big laughs in its first three minutes than this one has in its entire running time.

RIPPED OFF: MADOFF AND THE SCAMMING OF AMERICA (A&E Home Video. $19.95): Although everyone now knows the name Bernie Madoff, not everyone knows exactly what financial skullduggery he pulled in order to earn his 150-year prison term and the hatred of thousands of people who lost their savings as a result. This documentary does a good job of dissecting the man and his scheme while comparing it to similar frauds that have occurred throughout history. For those thirsting for more financial analysis, the DVD also includes “Crash: The Next Great Depression,” another documentary that examines our current economic crisis by comparing and contrasting it to the events that led up to the Great Depression.

THE SARGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (Facets Video. $29.99): I have spent years trying to figure out a way of adequately summarizing Wojciech Has’ surreal, epic-length 1965 Polish-language adaptation of the Jan Potocki book about a supernatural book discovered by two opposing soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars and have never been able to come up with the proper words to describe it. Instead, I will simply note some of the people who have endorsed it over the years--Jerry Garcia (who helped to fund its restoration), Martin Scorsese, Luis Bunuel, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch. You wanna argue with them?

Also On

BAD BOY BUBBY (Blue Underground. $34.95)

INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (Severin Films. $34.95)

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (Sony Home Entertainment. $38.95)

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (MGM Home Entertainment. $34.98)

12 MONKEYS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

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originally posted: 07/31/09 02:32:16
last updated: 07/31/09 02:54:02
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