DVD Reviews for 9/18: “Let’s Show Them What We’re Made Of.”
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/18/09 13:42:09
Before getting into the meat of this week’s soufflé of silliness--a horror-heavy affair featuring slashers, cannibals, undead babies, undead babes and my venerable mother’s all-time favorite werewolf movie--we should spare a moment or two in order to remember the late, great Henry Gibson, to whom the following column is dedicated. Actually, why not spare several moments and watch one of his movies instead as a way of better appreciating his talent. If you are unsure of what to choose, I would heartily recommend Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) and “Nashville” (1975), John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers” (1980), Joe Dante’s “The Burbs” (1989) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (2000) to see him at his best.
This week sees a glut of horror movies, both old and new, hitting DVD and Blu-ray--some for the first time and some in fancy new versions with plenty of bells and whistles included to entice fans to purchase them once again. Although many of these titles are covered below in the “New and Notable” section, there are three such releases--two classics and one newcomer--that I would like to shine an additional spotlight on--whether you are a hard-core genre buff or someone who tends to avoid such things as much as possible, these are a few that you must see or, in some cases, see again.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (FULL MOON EDITION) (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): Over the years, many filmmakers have attempted to combine horror and humor in the hopes of making a film that might have audiences simultaneously screaming with terror and laughter. Some of these attempts have paid off marvelously (such as “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” and “Scream”) while others (the disastrous “Jennifer’s Body” being the latest example) have failed miserably in their efforts to scare and amuse viewers. However, few have pulled this trick off as successfully as John Landis did with his hilarious and heart-stopping take on the werewolf film in which a callow young American backpacker (David Naughton) is bitten by a werewolf and tries (unsuccessfully) to control the beast now within him while the increasingly gruesome spirit of his best pal (Griffin Dunne), who was killed in the same attack, urges him to kill himself before the nest full moon. At the time it was released, many people criticized Landis, then best known for the comedy hits “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” for combining comedy and extreme gore (the still-stunning transformations from Rick Baker won the first Academy Award for makeup effects) by claiming that he didn’t know what kind of movie he wanted to make. Watching it today, however, the combination of the two genres plays beautifully--there are plenty of laughs to be had from the byplay between Naughton and Dunne, the various in-joke references and the ironic soundtrack choices but when Landis wants to make us scream, he is able to pull that off as well with a series of beautifully executed sequences that veer so effortlessly between long scenes of slowly building suspense and wildly effective shock moments that it is impossible to get too comfortable with the proceedings. Previously released on DVD a few years ago in a feature-packed edition that was pretty impressive for the day, this is being reissued (and issued on Blu-ray for the first time) in an edition featuring remastered picture and sound, all the extras from the original (including outtakes, a funny Naughton-Dunne commentary and the like) and a brand-new feature-length making-of documentary taking viewers through the entire history of the film. While the revamped picture isn’t that much of an improvement (which is probably a good thing for a film of this type since horror usually plays better with a little grunginess), the new documentary is so impressive and fascinating that even if you already own this one, you are pretty much going to have to buy it again if you are a fan.
THE HANNIBAL LECTER ANTHOLOGY (MGM Home Entertainment. $69.98): As you can probably surmise from the title, this set offers up the three most notable films featuring the cinema’s most cultivated and erudite cannibalistic serial killer, the esteemed Dr. Hannibal Lecter--Michael Mann’s cult classic “Manhunter” (1986), Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning triumph “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and Ridley Scott’s controversial “Hannibal” (2001). (Happily, “Red Dragon,” the terrible Brett Ratner remake of “Manhunter,” and the utterly useless prequel “Hannibal Rising” are owned by other studios and therefore haven’t been included.) Of the three, I am still convinced that “Manhunter” is the best of the bunch--the combination of Mann’s stylish direction, an all-aces cast (featuring William Petersen, the then-unknown Joan Allen and a marvelously creepy Brian Cox as the screen’s first Lecter) and any number of incredible scenes (especially the Iron Butterfly-scored climax) made it one of the very best cop movies of the 1980’s. (Even better, the version contained here does included the Petersen monologue about how someone needs to “blow the sick fuck out of his socks” that has often been inexplicably deleted from its various DVD incarnations.) There is little to be said about “Silence of the Lambs” that hasn’t been said before, so I will merely note that of all the films that have one the Best Picture Oscar in the last couple of decades, it is one of the few that remains truly deserving of the prize. As for “Hannibal,” I not only find it to be a brilliant exercise in Grand Guignol excess that is essentially a cinematic grand opera in which the arias have been replaced with astonishingly choreographed scenes of mayhem with Anthony Hopkins as the magnetic diva at its center, I am fully convinced that it is one of the most unjustly maligned and thoroughly underrated films of any kind to come out this decade.
GRACE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.97): Of course, some of you may be in the mood for some fresh and new thrills and chills and if that is the case, you might want to check out this weird and decidedly disturbing effort from writer-director Paul Solet that caused a sensation on the festival circuit (though not enough of one to earn it more than a token theatrical release in a few cities before hitting DVD). In it, Jordan Ladd stars as Madeline, a young woman who is one month away from delivering the baby that she and her husband have been struggling for years to conceive when a horrible accident kills both her husband and her unborn child. Nevertheless, she is still determined to carry the child to term and deliver it and when she does, the child miraculously comes back to life. However, as you can probably guess from just a quick glance at the DVD cover, the baby requires something a little stronger than milk or formula to survive and, unwilling to lose her child a second time, Madeline is determined to get little Grace what she needs regardless of the consequences. Although a little wobbly in parts--some genre buff may find themselves speculating what this premise might have been like in the hands of someone like Larry Cohen--this is a generally strong and straightforward work that takes its grim premise and sticks with it for the duration instead of trying to lighten it up. Throw in an effective central performance from Ladd and you have a horror film that certainly deserved better from a distribution standpoint and which is now waiting to finally be discovered.
NEW AND NOTABLE
CAMILLE (E1 Entertainment. $24.98): In this decidedly bizarre 2007 effort (so bizarre, in fact, that it makes sense that it never managed to garner a theatrical release), James Franco plays a small-time thug who marries his parole officer’s sweet-natured niece (Sienna Miller) because the honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls will give him a chance to get out of the country. However, it turns out that while he can’t stand her, she is totally devoted to him and will let nothing get in the way of their future together. It isn’t particularly great by any stretch of the imagination (Franco himself has blasted it in interviews) and anyone expecting a conventional romantic comedy is likely to come away from it puzzled at best. However, it does have a certain something that keeps it going long after it probably should have expired and Miller is pretty charming to boot.
DEADGIRL (Dark Sky Films. $24.98): In one of the ickier premises to grace a horror film in recent memory, a couple of teen outcasts wander the ruined halls of an abandoned hospital and come across the body of a beautiful naked and not-quite-dead woman chained to a table whom they decide to utilize as a sex slave, among other things. I won’t go into much more detail about what happens from this point (trust me, the film itself does that and more) but I will mention that it turns into a blood-soaked coming-of-age morality tale and while it may not be entirely successful at what it is trying to do, it at least has the guts to take itself seriously instead of copping out with inappropriate humor and an even more inappropriate happy ending. The end result is a work that is grim and unpleasant and not for most people to be sure but one that those with a taste for serious-minded horror and a strong stomach might want to check out for themselves.
EASY VIRTUE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): By shifting the focus of this adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1925 play (previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) about an American newlywed trying to fit in with her snobbish new British in-laws from being a satire of upper-class pretensions among the English (even as their money and position began to slip away in the post-war years) to a period version of “Meet the Parents” (complete with newly-added slapstick involving an odious pet), writer-director Stephen Elliot pretty much already doomed this film to disaster among those who might have actually cared about it in the first place. However, what really sinks this film is the epic miscasting of Jessica Biel as our heroine--she is never remotely convincing as a gal from the Roaring 20’s and even in a Noel Coward adaptation, the female lead should probably not have a more fearsome and imposing musculature than the male lead.
FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD/FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (Paramount Home Video. $16.99 each): Of course, if truth-in-advertising laws extended to the latter entries of long-running slasher franchises, these films would have actually been subtitled “Jason Meets Carrie” and “Jason Spends 80% Of The Damn Movie Killing Teen Twits On A Boat Headed For Manhattan And The Rest Taking Manhattan And Even Then, Most Of It Is Actually Vancouver Anyway.” Then again, that might be slightly awkward from a marquee perspective. It was just a thought--never mind.
NAUGHTY NYMPHS (Secret Key Motion Pictures. $19.98): I must confess that I have not seen this 1974 German sex comedy featuring Sybil Danning but let us be honest with each other--with a title like “Naughty Nymphs” and a descriptive phrase like “1974 German sex comedy featuring Sybil Danning,” do I really need to say anything else. I thought not.
NEXT DAY AIR (Summit Entertainment. $26.99): Like most of you, I didn’t see this contemporary blaxploitation comedy about a pot-addled overnight delivery driver and the trouble he causes when he delivers a package containing 10 kilograms of cocaine to the wrong apartment when it briefly appeared in theaters a few months ago--as I recall, it had the bad luck to open the same weekend as a little thing called “Star Trek.” However, even though it got mostly terrible reviews, a couple of my colleagues who did see it admitted to liking it, so I suppose I may have to check it out after all.
NIGHTWATCHING (E1 Entertainment. $34.98): Having thoroughly baffled even his most ardent followers with his multi-part, multi-media head-turner “The Tulse Luper Suitcases,” the always-provocative and always-interesting avant-garde filmmaker Peter Greenaway (still best known in these parts for the audacious “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) returns with this slightly more accessible, though no less audacious work that is partly a biopic of the great painter Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) during the period in which he created his epic work “The Night Watch” and partly a deconstruction of that work in which each piece of the painting is investigated to reveal the secrets that it contains. (Okay, when I said it was more accessible, I suppose I should have said that it was accessible by his standards.) While it may not reach the heights of such masterpieces as “Prospero’s Books” or “The Baby of Macon,” this is a thoroughly engrossing work and for Greenaway fanatics--I can only hope such people still exist--it is a must-see
ONE STEP BEYOND: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON (CBS DVD. $49.99): One of the first regular TV shows to deal with paranormal activities on a weekly basis (it premiered in 1959, about ten months before the debut of “The Twilight Zone”), this anthology series offered viewers stories dealing with the strange and unexplained (a bride-to-be is stricken by nightmares that her fiancé is going to drown and then discovers that her honeymoon will be aboard the Titanic) that, according to host/director John Newland, were all based on real-life incidents and could be proven as such. Hopefully, this set will sell enough copies to inspire the release of the other two seasons so we can get the episode in which Newland traveled to Mexico for a show dealing with mind-altering substances and actually downed some psychedelic mushrooms on camera. (Needless to say, this particular episode was dropped when the show hit syndication and has rarely been seen since its original broadcast.) Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include “Affairs of the Heart: Series 2” (Acorn Media. $39.99), “The Beiderbecke Tapes” (Acorn Media. $39.99), “The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Second Season” (Warner Home Video. $44.98), “Bonanza: The Official First Season, Volumes 1 & 2” (CBS DVD. $69.98 together or $39.98 individually), “CSI Miami: The Complete Seventh Season” (CBS DVD. $71.41), “Crash: Season One” (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $59.97), “Fame: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2” (MGM Home Entertainment. $39.98), “Grey’s Anatomy: The Complete Fifth Season” (ABC Studios. $59.99), “Mail Order Bride” (E1 Entertainment. $24.98), “My Name is Earl: Season 4” (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98), “Private Practice: The Complete Second Season” (ABC Studios. $59.99), “Sanctuary--The Complete First Season” (E1 Entertainment. $44.98) and “Tall Tales and Legends: The Complete Series” (E1 Entertainment. $24.98).
PHANTASM II (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): A long time ago, I ventured off to my local multiplex to see this 1988 sequel to Don Coscarelli’s trippy 1979 horror hit (the one with those funky spheres that fly around and drill into people’s heads at the behest of interstellar grave robber Angus Scrimm) as part of a double-bill with a sneak preview of a little art film that you may have heard of called “Die Hard.” Due to circumstances beyond my control, I missed the first 10 minutes of “Phantasm II” and while the rest of it was pretty much a junky retread of the original with more money and less ingenuity, I vowed that I would one day catch up with that unseen opening but for one reason or another, that sequence eluded me for the next 20-odd years--God knows how many times I came upon it late on cable over the years--until fate finally smiled on me recently and allowed me to finally see it with my own eyes. Alas, it turns out that it was just as bad as the rest of the movie and totally not worth the effort. I know that none of this means much of anything to you but I feel as if I have finally received some kind of closure and I thank you for your patience and indulgence. (BTW--the movie still sucks and fans that have been patiently waiting for it to hit DVD will be less than thrilled with the bare-bones treatment it has been given with a trailer serving as the only extra.)
PVC-1 (MPI Home Video. $24.98): No, this is not a loose translation of the old David Bowie song. Based on a real-life incident, this harrowing drama follows what happens when a group of masked thugs break into the home of a poor Colombian family, attach a bomb encased in plastic tubing around the mother’s neck and threaten to detonate it unless they receive a 15 million peso payoff that the family doesn’t have. To heighten the suspense, director Spiros Stathoulpoulos has shot the entire film in what appears to be one unbroken take a la “Rope” and “Russian Ark” and it is a testament to the overall effectiveness of the film that most viewers won’t even notice this particular gimmick after a while.
TRIANGLE (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Three of Hong Kong’s most notable filmmakers--Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To--teamed up to each direct a third, each working from where the previous one left off, of this odd action-adventure about a trio of down-on-their-luck pals lured by a mysterious stranger into breaking into a tightly guarded government building that supposedly has a valuable treasure buried beneath it. Perhaps inevitably, the film is kind of uneven (perhaps the inevitable result of letting someone as nutty as Tsui Hark set up the plot) but fans of the filmmakers will find it reasonably diverting.
TRUMBO (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Based on the play by his son, Christopher (who also directed), this film charts the life and work of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo through a combination of archival footage and readings of his letters from such luminaries as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson and Donald Sutherland, among others. While it may sound like just another talking head documentary, the fact that many of the issues touched upon in his story are still relevant today makes the film feel surprisingly topical and pertinent.
ULTIMATE FORCE OF FOUR (Miramax Home Entertainment. $109.99): This 4-disc set brings together a quartet of popular martial arts titles from the Miramax library that are making their debuts in the Blu-ray format. Of them, the Jackie Chan epic “The Legend of Drunken Master” (1994) is the most entertaining, Takeshi Kitano’s “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” (2003) is the dullest, Yuen Wo Ping’s “Iron Monkey” (1993) is the most by-the-book example of the genre and Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2001) is the most maddening in the way that it mixes an astonishing visual style with a storytelling approach that is far too arch for its own good. If you aren’t a fan of all four films, each is available separately for $39.99 each.
X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): You know, this spin-off of the hugely popular “X-Men” film franchise tracing the origins of the titanium-clawed anti-hero Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) came out only three months ago and even though it was a big hit at the box-office and everything, I can barely remember a single thing about it. However, based on the review that I wrote when it did hit theaters, it would appear that wiping it completely from my memory was probably the smartest thing to do under the circumstances. Also hitting the shelves this week is the animated collections “X-Men, Volume Three” and “X-Men, Volume 4” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $23.99 each).
AMADEUS--DIRECTOR’S CUT (Warner Home Video. $28.99)
ARMY OF DARKNESS (SCREWHEAD EDITION) (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)
CHILD’S PLAY (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.99)
DEEP IMPACT (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)
MISERY (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.99)
VAN HELSING (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)
VARSITY BLUES (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)
WRONG TURN (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99)
WRONG TURN 2: DEAD END (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99)