By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Blood Simple, Cat People, Shallows, Neon Demon, Sirk X 2, Warcraft, Kamikaze ’89 and more
Blood Simple: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t know how many rookie baseball players have hit a grand-slam home run in their first Major League appearance. Neither would I care to hazard a guess as to how many NHL players have pulled off the hat trick their first time on the ice or the number of NBA rookies who’ve tallied a triple-double in their debuts. A few probably, but not many. For most of the last 100 years, Orson Welles has stood out as the one filmmaker who changed the game in his first feature, Citizen Kane, even though his reputation as “boy genius” preceded his arrival in Hollywood. Before Blood Simple hit the festival circuit in September, 1984, at Deauville and Toronto, it’s safe to say that Joel and Ethan Coen couldn’t get arrested in this town. On the advice of Sam Raimi, they knocked on doors in Los Angeles, New York, the Twin Cities and Austin, hats in hand, trying to interest someone, anyone in checking out their two-minute teaser for the film. It’s what filmmakers did in the days before Kickstarter. Any money they raised went straight to their headquarters in Texas, where a cinema community was in its infancy and a few dollars went a long way. Even so, these future game-changers were so unknown that their star, M. Emmet Walsh, whose work they admired in Straight Time, demanded to be paid in cash, after each day’s work. His unnerving portrayal of the double-dealing private detective, Loren Visser, would be honored by IFP/West members with the inaugural Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor. (Joel Coen tied Martin Scorsese for Best Director and the picture was nominated for Best Feature, Best Screenplay and Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography.) Backed by the strong support of critics and positive word-of-mouth, Blood Simple grossed $2.15 million – not an insignificant sum for an indie — in its first theatrical go-round. More to the point, the Coens had effectively created a sub-genre of its own to accommodate the film’s singularly dark humor, troubling audio effects, unexpected violence, hip musical score and inventive cinematography. The critics labelled it “neo-noir,” because the story appeared to be influenced more by pulpy crime paperbacks of the 1950s than Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the camerawork favored that of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. In the interview section of the new Criterion Collection edition, the Coens admit to the film’s resemblance to the novels of Jim Thompson, but insist they hadn’t read any of them in their preparations for Blood Simple. Among the neo-noirs that soon followed in its wake were James Foley’s as After Dark, My Sweet, Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, John Dahl’s Kill Me Again, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Oliver Stone’s U Turn, Carl Franklin’s One False Move Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, Michael Oblowitz’ This World, Then the Fireworks.
The Blu-ray edition of Blood Simple benefits immensely from the new digital transfer, which was created in 4K 16-bit on a Scanity film scanner from the original 35mm camera negative. The restoration was supervised by the Coens, Sonnenfeld, producer David Diliberto, documentarian Lee Kline and colorist Sheri Eisenberg. It borders on the spectacular, especially in scenes that tended to fade into black on VHS and DVD. Consequently, too, the neon signs really pop out of the shadows, as do such sound effects as the mosquito zapper in an early scene between Walsh’s decidedly hard-boiled, but not at all noble P.I. and Dan Hedaya’s wonderfully paranoid honky-tonk owner. It’s their exchange of damning photographs and soiled cash that sets off the series of double-crosses, outright blunders and failed communication to come. Although her character couldn’t be mistaken for such femme fatales as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner or Ava Gardner, Frances McDormand’s naïve hick, Abby, satisfies the traditional noir notion of “cherchez la femme.” Thirty-plus years later, Blood Simple is every bit as entertaining – disturbing, too – as it was in 1985 and far more satisfying for those of us who first saw it on VHS or on television. The supplemental features on the Criterion disc include a collection of original trailers; new video interviews with actors McDormand and Walsh; a filmed conversation with the Coens and Sonnenfeld; new filmed interviews with composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring Nathaniel Rich’s essay “Down Here, You’re on Your Own” and technical credits.
September has been a banner month for Criterion collection. In addition to Blood Simple and the long-awaited Blu-ray edition of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s essential Dekalog, scrutinized by Ray Pride earlier this week, in his column Pride, Unprejudiced, the company has released impressive new editions of Kenji Mizoguchi’s pre-war romance, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), which balances light melodrama with a serious critique of social inequality in Japan; Carol Reed’s pre-WW II spy-vs.-spy drama, Night Train to Munich, which predated England’s entry into the larger European conflict and stars Paul Henreid, Rex Harrison and Margaret Lochwood; and Jacques Tourneur’s original 1942 horror thriller, Cat People, which would be remade 40 years later by Paul Schrader.
Newly restored on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Kieslowski’s death, the Criterion edition of Dekalog has been released in coordination with a limited U.S. theatrical run. It adds longer theatrical versions of the series’ fifth and sixth films; A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love; archival interviews with the director; new and vintage interviews with cast and crew; Annette Insdorf’s discussion of the series’ formal and thematic patterns; a new essay and capsules by Paul Coates; and excerpts from “Kieslowski on Kieslowski.” At a full list price of a shade south of $100, the generous package would make a fine holiday gift for anyone interested in making or watching great movies. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is enhanced by a new video interview with critic Phillip Lopate and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew.
Night Train to Munich adds an archival video interview with Bruce Babington, author of “Launder and Gilliat” – writers of “Night Train” and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which it resembles — and Peter Evans, author of “Carol Reed.” They discuss the movie’s production history and socio-political environment from which the film emerged, alongside an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Kemp. Far more bountiful is the supplemental package attached to Cat People, which should be considered mandatory viewing for horror buffs of almost any age. It includes an original trailer; a new video program, featuring cinematographer John Bailey; Kent Jones’ documentary, “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows”; an archival episode of the French television program “Cine,” with footage from an archival interview with director Jacques Tournier; commentary by film historian Gregory Mank; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Darkness Betrayed.” I enjoyed watching both versions back-to-back and comparing them based on how each reflects the standards of the periods in which they were made.
The Shallows: Blu-ray
Having taken a powder from big and small screens after the cancellation of “Gossip Girl,” Blake Lively staged something of a comeback this summer in Woody Allen’s period comedy Café Society and Jaume Collet-Serra’s creature feature The Shallows. Of the two, the latter required of the 5-foot-10 blond beauty the least number of costume changes and makeup adjustments. That’s because The Shallows takes place almost exclusively on or near a giant rock in the middle of a secluded bay, somewhere in the tropics. Lively plays Nancy, a skilled and adventurous surfer who’s dropped off at the pristine beach by a local resident and expects to spend the next couple of days catching waves in blissful solitude. Her idyll is disrupted slightly by the presence of a couple of dudes already in the water, with whom she’s required to share small talk, but they turn out not to be proprietary and there are plenty of waves for everyone to share. As befits her sport and the climate, Nancy’s attire consists almost entirely of a modest bikini, wetsuit top and multipurpose watch that allows here to calculate distances and the timing of tidal flows. When Nancy’s wave-mates decide to call it a day, she makes the mistake of holding out for one last set. In its place arrives a huge great white shark, for whom the shallow waters and coral formations serve as a reliable feeding ground. After biting the human interloper on the leg, the shark develops a ravenous appetite for human flesh. Like the North Vietnamese sniper in Full Metal Jacket, the female shark responds to Nancy’s every attempt to swim to a nearby buoy or the beach, which, absent the wound, would easily be within her reach. Her only companion on the rock is a bird she names Steven Seagull, also stranded with a damaged wing. With high tide approaching and blood still leaking from a makeshift tourniquet, what’s a girl to do? All I’ll say in the way of a spoiler is that Lively and the CGI shark perform every task Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) asks of them in highly credible fashion. And while the setting is beautiful, Nancy’s feeling of abject helplessness and solitude are palpable. OK, it’s not Jaws, but the jump-scares are legitimately frightening and were far less expensive to produce. The bonus package contains deleted scenes and four very good making-of featurettes. The Shallows is also is available in 4K UHD.
The Neon Demon: Blu-ray
Nicolas Winding Refn is the kind of fearless young filmmaker who doesn’t appear to be fazed by negative reviews in the mainstream media, boos at press screenings at Cannes and miniscule box-office returns. Born in Copenhagen and raised by filmmaker parents partly in New York, where he was dismissed from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for throwing a table into a wall, Refn has pointed to surrealistic Alejandro Jodorowsky and splatter classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as primary influences. Both are on display in The Neon Demon, a surrealistic horror for anyone who’s ever wondered what motivates fashion designers to dress beautiful teenage models as if they were circus clowns from another dimension or why magazine editors lap up every new atrocity and feed them to readers who wouldn’t wear the clothes, shoes and accessories on a bet. Celebrities, maybe, but no who actually pays for them. Elle Fanning (Trumbo) was 16 when she was cast as Jesse, a prototypically skeletal blond who arrives in L.A. one day, out of the blue, like just another Alice Kingsleigh approaching Wonderland. Almost immediately, she impresses a prominent agent (Christina Hendricks), who finds her gigs with an artsy-fartsy photographer (Desmond Harrington) and eccentric clothing designer (Alessandro Nivola). Jesse’s instructed to tell anyone who asks that she’s 19, instead of 16, presumably to allow them to shoot the waif in provocative poses.
As the new girl on the block, Jesse’s presence reminds the other models that their expiration date is quickly approaching and the lifts and tucks won’t last forever. The horror kicks in when her primary rivals, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), take on several of the primary characteristics of vampires and her only friend, Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist, initiates the sexual advance we can see coming from a mile away. It doesn’t work, but Ruby alleviates her disappointment at the funeral home where she also works. Things only get nastier from there. If The Neon Demon proves anything here, it’s that Refn probably could do as good a job staging and sound directing runway fashion shows as anyone already in the business. (Cliff Martinez’ electronic soundtrack serves as a distinctly different supporting character.) Although Refn claims to be color blind, the brilliance and intensity of his palette in both “Demon” and Only God Forgives could hardly be more invigorating. In this regard, comparisons to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, set in a similar milieu, wouldn’t be too far-fetched. Both directors demand a great deal from their audiences, who welcome the challenges in anticipation of the moments of genius. That’s why I don’t think it’s fair to judge Refn by the largely negative reaction to his last two films. His Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive received excellent reviews, even as they pushed the limits on stylized violence and action. Neither is he ever at a loss for visual references to his favorite films and directors. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Refn and Fanning, a featurette on the musical score and short backgrounder.
Two Films by Douglas Sirk Double Feature: Blu-ray
Several years before Douglas Sirk embarked on a series of still-celebrated Hollywood melodramas, in collaboration with producer Ross Hunter and Universal Studios, he made a pair of black-and-white pot-boilers that remain pretty entertaining: A Scandal in Paris and Lured. If, today, they don’t fit the pigeonhole the German-born director’s been assigned by enamored critics and academics, based on All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, they remain interesting for several other sound reasons. First is the marriage of solid story-telling and appealing visual qualities necessary for any enjoyment of the somewhat shaggy narratives. Another is the presence of debonair leading man George Sanders, who frequently played scoundrels and villainous characters, but wasn’t limited to them. In fact, he was almost comically versatile, able to play incognito crime-fighters, the Gay Falcon and the Saint, and characters worthy of Academy Award consideration, such as Addison DeWitt, in All About Eve. At 6-foot-3, Sanders was comfortable in roles ranging from cad to sea captain, without being limited by historical periods or fear of being strictly typecast. (In addition to being a fine actor, Sanders is fondly remembered by movie buffs for being married to and divorced from Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor and for making good on his promise to commit suicide when he got old and bored with life.)
In Lured, the most obvious attraction – now, if not in 1947 – is the presence of Lucille Ball as a brassy American dame, Sandra Carpenter. The feisty redhead went to London to work in a show, but now finds herself stuck working as a taxi-dancer in a cheapo London nightclub. When a fellow entertainer disappears after a date with a mysterious suiter, Sandra volunteers her services to Scotland Yard Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who suspects she fell victim to the so-called Poet Killer or, perhaps, a white-slave trader. Whoever is making the women disappear connects with them through ads placed in the personal columns, then taunts police with clues that reference images in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, of all writers. Adapted from Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French thriller Pieges, Lured (a.k.a., “Personal Column”) was shot in a Hollywood studio. A few outdoor inserts showing a foggy Thames River gave it a decidedly, if not definitively noir texture. Among the other cops and suspects are Boris Karloff, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Mowbray and George Zucco. Commentary is provided by film historian Jeremy Arnold.
A Scandal in Paris is loosely based on the ghost-written memoirs of French criminal-turned-criminalist Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), a fascinating character whose exploits also influenced the writings of Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe and Honoré de Balzac. A voice-over narrator describes how Sanders’ Vidocq was literally born behind bars and, from his cradle, could study the stars through the barred windows. The constellations and galaxies would come to represent the freedom that comes with escape and life on the lam. Whenever things got too weird and dangerous on the outside, Vidocq returned “home” to the prison and friends he left behind him. After one such escape, Vidocq and his Sancho Panza, Emile (Akim Tamiroff), embark on a picaresque series of encounters with people who ranged from aristocrats to felons, often while sitting on a stolen white horse. When he tired of the grind of stealing jewelry from elderly women and planning bank heists with his cronies, Vidocq embarks on a second career as a police investigator, private detective and forensics expert. Once again, the obvious studio-made texture is enhanced by the razor-sharp B&W cinematography and fairytale set design. Also on hand are Carol Landis, Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, Alma Kruger and Alan Napier, who, 20 years later, would play butler Alfred Pennyworth to Adam West’s Batman. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Wade Major, film critic with NPR affiliate KPCC-FM and co-host/producer of the IGN DigiGods podcast.
Kamikaze ’89: Blu-ray
Although the still-active Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog are the most widely known representatives of the New German Cinema, which flourished from the late 1960s into the 1980s, the artist who most personified the movement’s rebellious, anti-establishment spirit was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His transgressive approach to the theater and cinema prompted observers to label him the NGC’s enfant terrible, as well as its most prolific and challenging creative force. Before Fassbinder’s suicide on June 10, 1982, at 37, he completed 40 feature-length films, a pair of television series, 3 three short films, 4 video productions, 24 stage plays, 4 radio plays and 36 acting roles. It explains why some of his creations are more accessible than others. Outside of Europe, Fassbinder’s best-known work probably is the acclaimed 15-hour television mini-series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” an adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same title. Wolf Gremm’s rarely seen Kamikaze ’89 represents Fassbinder’s last acting appearance in a feature film. He plays Jansen, a respected cop living in a dystopic future, where a mysterious organization known as the Combine controls all media. After its headquarters receives several bomb threats, the post-punk detective is tasked with investigating possible threats to the nefarious conglomerate. Here, the near-future setting is 1989 Germany, which has become the richest of nations and all economic, social and political problems have been solved through heavy-handed measures. Even though the use of alcohol has been prohibited, the boredom that sometimes accompanies perfection has produced an environment so boring that it drives its citizens to drink. To compensate, the conglomerate’s boss, Blue Panther, sponsors such events as televised laughing contests to control the minds of the people. Based on Per Wahloo’s post-Utopian novel ”Murder on the 31st Floor,” in which Jansen so unnerves the authorities – he wears a simulated leopard-skin suit and similarly hideous bright red shirt — they become more concerned with preserving the secret of the “thirty-first floor” than with discovering who is threatening the company. Some of the best moments in this chaotic tale come when Jansen’s relaxing in the clandestine Cop Bar, which combines elements of nightlife from Blade Runner with every neon-lit strip bar in made-for-Cinemax movies. It’s goofy, alright, but Fassbinder fans aren’t likely to mind even the really crazy stuff. The soundtrack is by Edgar Froese, of Tangerine Dream, and bonus features include commentary by producer Regina Ziegler, the 60-minute documentary, “Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year,” John Cassavetes’ Kamikaze ’89 radio spots and a collector’s booklet with an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton and a mini-essay about the film’s soundtrack, written by Samuel B. Prime.
Also included in the Film Movement package is Ziegler’s feature-length documentary A Wolf at the Door, about the last years of her husband-collaborator, Gremm. Diagnosed with cancer and given one year to live, Gremm elects to fight the spread of the disease with every ounce of his stamina. He goes along with all of the usual therapies, while also exploring the alternative recommendations of various specialists in Europe and the United States. Although he’s in severe pain throughout the ordeal, morphine patches allow Gremm to function at home and on poignantly nostalgic trips to Majorca, Las Vegas, Death Valley, San Francisco and Miami. Ziegler’s attention to the details of her husband’s therapy, treatments and mental well-being are remarkable, as is her ability to capture them in such an objective, even-handed manner. Miraculously, Gremm’s life is extended by another two years, at least.
City of Gold
Laura Gabbert’s mouth-watering documentary City of Gold follows Pulitzer Prize-winning food and dining critic Jonathan Gold around Los Angeles, mostly discovering new and ever-more-diverse ethnic restaurants for the Times’ middle- and upper-class subscribers, so they don’t have to leave their well-padded nests. At the same time, Gabbert shadows the writer as he expounds on his eclectic tastes and diversions, visits with relatives, shmoozes restaurateurs and foodies and attends staff meetings at the newspaper. As is its wont, the then-fat publication hired him away from the LA Weekly, where, five years earlier, his lively populist writing made him the first food critic to be awarded journalism’s top prize. (Now, even as the Tronc-owned paper shrinks, you sometimes need a roadmap to find it.) If, today, Los Angeles is considered to be one of the top culinary destinations in the country, it’s not because of the celebrity-haunt restaurants on the city’s West Side or formal downtown dining rooms. Instead, as noted in the film, it’s because of the dizzying array of places – including strip malls, food trucks and pushcarts – that ply the regional cuisine of dozens of countries around the world. Typically, the owners of these establishments don’t have the wherewithal to publicize their businesses or reach out beyond their native customers and neighbors. One restaurateur recalls wondering what all of the white faces were doing in his place all of sudden, before being informed of Gold’s review in that morning’s paper. The stories behind the dishes also serve as history lessons on the current ethno-geography of Los Angeles and the city’s culinary micro-economy. It’s possible, as well, to sense the intensity of the heat coming off of the chili peppers served in his favorite dishes. Anyone unfamiliar with Gold’s work might wonder why he would betray traditional critical anonymity for the sake of someone else’s film. In fact, Gold would be recognized almost immediately, anyway, if only because of his straggly hair, frequently unkempt attire and profile only matched by Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles. He doesn’t alert restaurateurs of his plans or take pictures of his food with an iPhone, as do the Yelpian masses. More than anything else, though if it weren’t Gold’s writing, which is as tantalizing as the food, few people would traipse 20-30 miles out of their way to sample the tacos made in an East L.A. food truck.
Edge of Winter
Co-writer/director Rob Connolly puts an unusual spin on the horror genre’s tried-and-true cabin-in-the-woods storyline, by taking what’s typically a source of hair-raising apparitions and heebie-jeebies and turning it into an innocent bystander. In Edge of Winter, a recently divorced and laid off dad hopes to score points with his sons by taking them on a winter camping trip to a secluded lake in The Middle of Nowhere, Ontario. The kids don’t know what to expect, exactly, and appear to have been negatively affected by the secrecy surrounding the divorce. For his part, Elliot (Joel Kinnaman) lets them engage in such traditional bonding activities as driving his truck through the woods and using his shotgun to kill bunny rabbits. The boys aren’t all that into it, but it’s a start. It isn’t until the oldest son drives the truck into a snow drift and falls into a semi-frozen lake that things turn weird. Elliot becomes completely unhinged after hearing that his wife is planning to move out of state with her boyfriend and plans on taking the boys with her. He turns the cabin into a psychological fortress, to the point that he refuses to acknowledge the protocols of humanitarian behavior in the frozen wilderness. The arrival of two hunters, merely seeking shelter and warmth, triggers emotions that turn Elliot into the kids’ worst nightmare.
Highlander : 30th Anniversary [Bluray
While I can’t comprehend the “World of Warcraft” phenomenon any more than I’ve been able to grasp the significance of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Rings,” I was struck by the similarities between the Warcraft movie adapted from the video game franchise and the recent History Channel docudrama series, “Barbarians Rising” (reviewed below). The rebel hordes that challenge the Roman legions, for example, could easily be mistaken for the warriors portrayed in Blizzard’s incredibly popular “real time strategy” game. Neither are the costumes all that different from any those created from leather, faux animal pelts and tin foil for other sword-and-sandals and pirate extravaganzas. Then, too, Hannibal’s elephants must have seemed as bizarre to the Romans as the gryphons in Warcraft (a.k.a., Warcraft: The Beginning). The intensity of the hand-to-hand combat is similar, as well. It all makes sense when you consider how video games are based on actual events in world history and retranslated for kids addicted to them. Even after watching Duncan Jones’ and Charles Leavitt’s epic fantasy/adventure, Warcraft, I can’t come up with a better summary than the one provided on the Blu-ray/DVD jacket, “The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, an unlikely set of heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their families, their people and their home. So begins a spectacular saga of power and sacrifice in which war has many faces, and everyone fights for something.” Obviously, those already consumed with the game and its various extensions are the target audience for Warcraft. That it underperformed at the domestic box office shouldn’t be held against those who made it look as wild-and-woolly as it does. The special effects are terrific, as are the other relevant production values. Warcraft fared fair better in overseas markets, especially China, so it isn’t likely we’ve seen the last in the series just yet. The Blu-ray package offers deleted/extended scenes, a gag reel and the featurettes “The World of Warcraft on Film,” “The Fandom of Warcraft,” “Warcraft: Bonds of Brotherhood,” “Motion Comic,” “Warcraft: The Madame Tussauds Experience,” “ILM: Behind the Magic of Warcraft,” the 2013 teaser and origin story.
And, in the same way that the warriors in Warcraft, “Barbarians Rising” and Conan the Barbarian, for that matter, might have been modeled on the ancient Barbarian tribes, so, too, could the entire “World of Warcraft” universe have emerged from Gregory Widen’s multiplatform Highlander franchise, which preceded Blizzard’s brainstorm by eight years. The coincidental arrival of Lionsgate’s Highlander: 30th Anniversary Edition benefits from a nifty 4K restoration of the film completed by StudioCanal, as well as the inclusion of vintage features reprised from the 25th anniversary package, including deleted scenes, commentary with director Russell Mulcahy and interviews. In it, during a fierce sword battle in the 1500s, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a simple Scotsman known as a poor fighter, is mortally wounded, but does not die. MacLeod learns from the mysterious Ramírez (Sean Connery) that he is of a race of immortals. These rare knights, not to be confused with vampires, one supposes, never age and never reproduce. They can only meet death by the blade of another of their kind. Leaping back and forth through the centuries, MacLeod once again meets the evil Kurgan (Clancy Brown) who nearly killed him 500 years earlier. All mythology aside, however, the spectacular Scottish Highlands locations are what set Mulcahy’s original apart from the other installments and other sword-and-fantasy pictures. (Sequels would be filmed in Romania, British Columbia, Argentina and Lithuania, along with more physically accessible parts of Scotland.) Like so many other cult favorites, Highlander was considered, at first, to be a box-office dud. Even then, however, it would benefit from overseas revenue and buzz from the VHS and Laser Disc releases. (The Queen songs didn’t hurt, either.) I wonder how many fans of Starz’ time-travel romance, “Outlander,” see in Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) a female counterpart to Connor McLeod. Incidentally, a Highlander remake is on the boards for 2017 or 2018.
Lady in White: Blu-ray
Blood Diner: Blu-ray
Chopping Mall: Blu-ray
PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments
In 1988, it must have been difficult for a distributor of genre films to sell a supernatural thriller, based on a legitimately ghostly legend from Upstate New York, that wasn’t dominated by blood-stained cutlery and butchered teenagers, preferably nude or in their underwear. It was a time when a PG-13 rating — as was fairly accorded filmmaker Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White — must have seemed like the kiss of death. Critics gave it mostly positive reviews, but, by then, the approval of the mainstream press also could make it a non-starter. LaLoggia based his film on a long-standing urban legend he heard while growing up in the region about a mother whose daughter disappeared, apparently at the hands of a predatory young suitor. The White Lady roams the lake front, searching for the missing girl. The supposed residence of the White Lady, a demolished hotel built in the 1800s, has become a popular tourist attraction. In Lady in White, a wide-eyed boy played by Lukas Haas (Witness) becomes caught in the mystery after being attacked by the presumed serial killer and witnessing the nightly ritual of a ghost in the translucent form of a slain child. That his story isn’t totally discredited by friends, family and police only adds to the drama. Haas’ Frankie Scarlatti is surrounded by immigrant relatives, who ultimately provide a safety net for him when he’s most threatened. The scares derive from plot devices that will remind viewers of movies that carry such names as Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Tobe Hooper and Walt Disney. Lady in White was LaLoggia’s second feature, after Fear No Evil. He made another feature, Mother, in 1995, before retiring to Italy. It probably has something to do with the difficulty in financing pictures. Two decades before Kickstarter, LaLoggia’s cousin, Charles, raised production money from 4,000 investors, many of whom live in and around the small town of Lyons in Upstate New York that doubles for the fictional Willowpoint Falls in Lady in White. The excellent bonus package adds commentary with LaLoggia, behind-the-scenes footage with an introduction by LaLoggia, deleted scenes, a promotional short film, media spots, a behind-the-scenes photo montage, an extended photo gallery and party site for teenagers and three separate versions of the movie: the theatrical cut, a director’s cut and an extended director’s cut.
Blood Diner and Chopping Mall don’t resemble Lady in White in any way, shape or form, other than 35mm. They represent the kind of low-budget films that were popular in the mid-1980s and stealing screens in drive-ins, especially, from less exploitative stuff. I don’t know if the Vestron releases made any money, but they’ve been accorded an afterlife based on cult status, alone. Originally, Jackie Kong’s Chopping Mall was intended to be a long-delayed sequel to the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 film Blood Feast, which featured an ancient Egyptian love goddess and numerous hacked-up teenage girls. (The “godfather of gore, died Monday, at 87.) Kong (The Under Achievers) and writer Michael Sonye (Commando Squad) decided to take the horror/comedy route, instead. Here, Michael and George Tutman (Rick Burks, Carl Crew) are the owners of a successful health-food restaurant, which serves dishes made from body parts left over from their nightly human-sacrifice rituals. They do so at the behest of the re-animated brain and eyeballs of their Uncle Anwar, who was executed before he could complete the job he never got to finish: the resurrection of the goddess Sheetar from the limbs and organs of his victims. As such, it fits the definition of being so bad, it’s good … kind of. It features lots of T&A, funny Third Reich references, insane amounts of gore and a twisted sense of humor. The punk rock and doo-wop soundtrack isn’t bad, either. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kong and executive producer Lawrence Kasanoff; the isolated score, featuring select audio commentary with composer Don Preston; interviews with Kong, the rare woman director in the horror genre, actor Carl Crew, DP Jurg V. Walther, FX creator Bruce Zahlava and writer Michael Sonye. There’s also an archival interview with crew member and Hollywood Book & Poster owner Eric Caiden.
The future may belong to robots, but, even today, they’re far from infallible. In Jim Wynorski’s 1986 Chopping Mall, all it takes is lightning bolt to reprogram the R2D2 wannabees that provide overnight security at the Park Plaza Mall. Instead of targeting burglars and other trespassers, the robots use their laser beams to take out anything that moves. These include four couples that have lingered past closing time to make out in a mattress store. Because all of the exits are blocked or locked, the characters are at the mercy of the androids. It’s said that Chopping Mall was inspired by Trapped, a 1972 made-for-TV movie in which six vicious Doberman guard dogs terrorize James Brolin, who was knocked unconscious by a mugger and missed by the human guards in their final sweep. Producer Julie Corman’s participation ensured that everything would be done on the cheap and there would be just enough topless interludes to keep the drive-in crowd interested. Wynorski, who was just getting his feet wet in the exploitation game, found several interesting ways to get around the budget limitations and keep it fun. They include cameos by Corman regulars Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Dick Miller, Gerrit Graham and several voluptuous scream queens. (The explosion of Suzee Slater’s head may be the movie’s highlight.) Otherwise, Chopping Mall is pretty tame and only occasionally funny. The Blu-ray bonus package overflows with commentaries, interviews and backgrounders on the robots and Chuck Cirino’s terrific electronic soundtrack.
The 1995 DIY cult sensation PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments has been released on DVD in remastered form for the first time. Like so many other do-it-yourself efforts, it’s remarkable mostly for being completed in the first place. Over the course of a year, aided by a dedicated team of friends, volunteers and “fellow film rebels,” Ontario filmmaker Erica Benedikty wrote, produced, directed and edited the sci-fi action thriller, allegedly for only $250. (Others put the figure at $5,000, figuring in donated equipment.) There are times when “Phobe” looks as if it were financed with S&H Green Stamps, donations and buckets of blood, sweat and tears. Roman candles and Lightsabers were substituted for more sophisticated effects. In it, an escapee from a military experiment on another planet arrives on Earth to plant some sort of egg. A mullet-coifed space cop follows the creature here, battling it in a forest dangerously close to Niagara Falls. Benedikty not only was able to complete PHOBE, but also hold an opening night screening, other showings (cable access and YouTube count for something) and dream that it would be discovered. This DVD qualifies as a real coup. It comes with commentary by writer/director Erica Benedikty, moderated by Paul Corupe (canuxploitation.com) and Peter Kuplowsky (Laser Blast Film Society); Benedikty’s first feature-length movie, Back in Black; a documentary on the creation of the film and its continuing legacy; a Q&A with cast and crew, following a home-town screening in St. Catharine, Ontario; original FX shots from 1995 broadcast version of “Phobe”; outtakes; a performance of the theme by Gribble Hell.
Slugs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I can’t think of more succinct high-concept premise for a horror story than the one used to describe this outrageous 1988 creature feature: “Killer slugs on the rampage in a rural community.” True, the same pitch could be recycled to include anything from ants to elephants, but the sight of dozens of slimy, licorice-black critters emerging from faucets, toilet bowls, sewers, garden hoses and body orifices, simultaneously, is almost too gruesome to bear. And, yes, they sport sharp little fangs capable of doing great harm to human flesh. (Coincidentally, much of Slugs was shot on location in Lyons, N.Y., which, in 1988, also filled in for the town in Lady in White.) Apparently, the onslaught began when water slugs migrated from the nearby lake at breeding time, into the city’s sewage system, which once served as a toxic dump. Of course, they did. Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón (Pieces) adapted the movie from the 1982 horror novel, “Slugs,” by Shaun Hutson. In addition to massive amounts of slime and gore – it originally was rated X – there was enough T&A to satisfy any drive-in customer, back in the day. The meticulous Arrow Video hi-def restoration is accompanied by commentary with writer and filmmaker Chris Alexander; interviews with actor Emilio Linder, special-effects artist Carlo De Marchis and art director Gonzalo Gonzalo; an interview and locations tour with production manager Larry Ann Evans; a 1988 Goya Awards promo reel; original theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Wes Benscoter; and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing Michael Gingold.
Arriving on Blu-ray/DVD without any hint of fanfare, Subterranea, is the kind of off-the-wall movie that deserves to be discovered by fans of experimental psycho-dramas and dark, low-budget thrillers. Based on a 1997 concept album by British neo-progressive rock band IQ – itself inspired by Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser — Mathew Miller’s debut feature follows a man known only as The Captive (Bug Hall), who, after being forced to live his entire life within a darkened cell, is released into the world for the first time with nothing but the clothes on his back. Never having seeing the light of day or another human being, the Captive’s first fully conscious impressions are provided by the roar of a subway train and the helping hand of a homeless man, Remy (Nicholas Turturro). The only thing that isn’t a mystery is his memory of the voice of the man he knows only as The Provider, who kept him fed and captive for all those years. With no more walls to contain him, the Captive faces an entirely new world that’s full of unlimited and threatening horizons. Finally, he discovers that he’s the cornerstone of an orchestrated social experiment, devised by the Provider, and he’s inherited enemies and allies he couldn’t have known existed. Although a lot of disbelief needs to be suspended, Subterranea will reward those willing to go along for the ride. Characters played William Katt, Amber Mason and Lily Gladstone know more about the Captive than he knows about himself. The deleted scenes and featurettes included in the package will help viewers put together some of the missing pieces.
A House Is Not a Home
While watching Christopher Ray’s haunted-house thriller, A House Is Not a Home, I was reminded of a quip made Eddie Murphy, about moving into a new home on Long Island and the possibility that it might be haunted by its former owner, a cranky old Jewish man. “Boo! … Get off my lawn! … Boo-ooo! I’m under the bed now! …. Or, maybe I’m not. Who knows? Maybe. I could be. Who cares? … I could be under the bed.” He went on to point out something that’s all too obvious to jaded viewers, “I was watching movies like Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. Why don’t the people just get the hell out of the house? You can’t make a horror movie with black people in it. … You’d see (them) runnin’ down the street … the movie’s over!” Murphy’s theory was well known to Ray and male lead Gerald Webb before they started shooting their movie. The sentiment is echoed, as well, by the son of transplanted urbanites Ben and Linda Williams the morning after a scary first night in the house. Instead of splitting immediately, the Williams elect to ignore the bumps in the night and tough it out. Ben and Linda have decided that the best way to get a fresh start on their troubled marriage is to buy a big ol’ house in the suburbs. Yeah, that always works. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the house has a mind of its own and it wants Ray, an architect, to make some changes. By the time the Williams figure out what’s happening, it’s too late to leave. But, they have to try, anyway. Although things got a bit too dark and smoky for my little DVD to decipher with any precision, there was plenty of hocus-pocus on display to satisfy fans of the haunted-house subgenre. I don’t think it’s unfair to mention that Ray’s resume includes such Syfy gems as Mega Shark vs. Kolossus, 3-Headed Shark Attack and Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus. The writing team of James and Jon Kondelik (Airplane vs. Volcano) and Victoria Dadi (2012: Ice Age) had some beauts on their resume, as well. So, clearly, A House Is Not a Home could have turned out a lot worse. Filling out the cast are Aurora Perrineau (Jem and the Holograms), Bill Cobbs (A Night at the Museum), Richard Grieco (“21 Jump Street”), Diahnna Nicole Baxter (“Scandal”) and Eddie Steeples (“My Name is Earl”).
Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich
What would a World War II movie be without a cameo, at least, by Tom Sizemore? No, I don’t want to think about it, either. In addition to a key role in Saving Private Ryan, Sizemore kept extremely busy in the past few years acting in films encompassing every genre imaginable and even more sub-genres. For a guy who many deemed to be unemployable a dozen years ago, he’s doing very well. The thing about most of these low-budget, fact-based movies is that a little bit of history goes a long way. In Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich, for example, Allied intelligence officers are aware of the plot to kill Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders inside his Wolf’s Lair field headquarters, near Rastenburg, East Prussia. They’ve assigned a special-ops team to extract the man destined to lead post-war Germany. (I missed that part in Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie.) The assassination plot ultimately collapses, however, leaving the team stranded in the middle of enemy-held territory. After a series of easily spoiled coincidences, the team finds itself preparing for another top-secret mission, this time with a Soviet special-ops team, led by Major Aleksandr Kulkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff). This time, the combined Allied unit – including the requisite beautiful spy, Julie Engelbrecht – is tasked with finding a train loaded with gold bars and preventing it from unloading the ill-gained booty onto a submarine heading for Argentina. Naturally, there are a lot of violent confrontations between Gestapo troops and the combined unit. And, of course, the Nazis can’t hit the broadside of a barn with their machine guns, while the good guys can’t miss, even with handguns. Nonetheless, director Claudio Fäh (Sniper: Reloaded) is able to make the most of a flawed script, small budget and Bulgarian locations.
Justin Hayward: Live in Concert at the Capitol Theatre
If the Moody Blues aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other British Invasion bands, it isn’t because they were considered inferior to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who, or a johnny-come-lately to the scene. It’s just that, by 1967, when their concept album, “Days of Future Past,” was released, the Moody Blues had effectively merged rock, pop and orchestral music into something called “art rock,” which gradually evolved into “progressive rock.” The sub-genre wouldn’t flourish until the mid-1970s and, by that time, the band was ready for a long hiatus. On the strength of its first batch of albums – loosely linked to psychedelia, with its ode to Timothy Leary on “In Search of the Lost Chord” – the Moody Blues entered the pantheon of classic-rock acts, doomed to reprise the same favorites on endless reunion tours. Based on filmmaker David Minasian’s latest collaboration with Justin Hayward, “Live in Concert at the Capitol Theatre,” that’s OK with me. Hayward’s elegant voice is in fine shape on this lovingly produced film, which mixes the hits with new compositions, and never sounds old or dusty. The bonus videos include “The Wind of Heaven,” written with the director.
Confessions of Isabella
The most interesting thing about Trina McGee’s DIY drama, Confessions of Isabella, isn’t her ability to wear five different hats simultaneously – director, writer, co-star, producer, composer – but the long list of Hispanic and African-American actors she enlisted to work on it. If Hollywood truly is looking for a Rainbow Coalition of young faces to add diversity to its movies, all they have to do is find McGee’s phone number. It isn’t as if it wouldn’t be difficult to locate. Her own list of credits includes 59 appearances on “Boy Meets World” and several visits to Bill Maher’s previous employer, ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.” Here, Isabella (Alexya Garcia) is a young Latina dancer attempting to make a name for herself in the hip-hop scene. She gets the opportunity when she hooks up with producer Antonio (Alejandro Bravo), who promises her the moon but follows through on none of them. He also cheats on her with every new ingénue that enters his studio. Big shock. Antonio also owes a hip-hop musician money and/or recordings, neither of which he’s likely to deliver. Along comes McGee, as a homeless woman with stringy gray hair, who sympathizes with Isabella and offers a solution of her own that, turns out, only makes things worse. Neither is she served well by a fortune-telling dishwasher at a local diner who essentially tells her to follow her heart … advice she could have gotten from a fortune cookie. Oh, yeah, Trina also appears on the trailer for Marcello Thedford’s upcoming Sins of the Guilty, as star and writer. The scenes in the preview look suspiciously familiar to images just seen in Confessions of Isabella. And, yet, as insufficiently entertaining as it is, McGee’s film could serve as inspiration for minority filmmakers to never give up on their dreams, no matter how unlikely it seems to find distribution.
PBS: Masterpiece: Indian Summers: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
History: Barbarians Rising
Even though Season Two of “Indian Summers” is still unspooling on PBS affiliates here, rabid fans of the fine British mini-series can avoid the weekly interruptions by picking up the Blu-ray compilation and binging to their hearts’ content. The good news is that one needn’t be a student of British colonial history or, even, an admirer of previous mini-series, “The Far Pavillions” and “The Jewel in the Crown,” to enjoy this elegantly soapy production. The bad news came with the announcement of its cancellation after only two chapters in a planned five-season arc. Given the expenses involved and declining ratings in England, it isn’t likely to find any backers for an extension. It’s our loss. The second stanza picks up three years after the events that closed the first season. The British socialites and colonial officials who vacation in Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, are still able to pretend that their reign won’t end in 12 short years, even as they can see the dark clouds of war forming over Europe. Cynthia (Julie Walters) is still in charge of maintaining decorum and tradition at the newly integrated – sort of, anyway – social club, while also promoting the chances of Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) to ascend to the rank of Viceroy on the imminent retirement of Lord Willingdon (Patrick Malahide). His seemingly loyal Indian aide, Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), is facing pressure from his associates in the Independence Party to betray Ralph, but is conflicted by his love for Ralph’s sister, now married to bullying banker Charlie Havistock (Blake Ritson). Even J.R. Ewing couldn’t have scripted the twists and turns from there any better than Paul Rutman (“Vera”) and his writing team. The former summer capital of British India has modernized to the point where the producers decided to stage the series in the lush hills of Penang, Malaysia. Its beauty helps explain the sense of entitlement enjoyed by the Brits at work and at play. New cast members in Season Two are Art Malik, as the pompous Maharajah, and Rachel Griffiths, as his Australian concubine; Arjun Mathur, as the terrorist, Naresh Banerjee; and James Fleet, as the almost fatally horny Lord Hawthorne. The excellent Blu-ray package adds a decent making-of featurette.
In its attempt to combine education and entertainment, the History Channel mini-series “Barbarians Rising” took a somewhat different tack than what is usually applied to such endeavors. The series not only is told from the point of view of the various rebel leaders who challenged the rule of the Roman Empire – a.k.a., Barbarians — it also presents brief commentaries from modern scholars and historians, and supplements both with computer-generated maps. Imagine watching Starz’ “Spartacus,” HBO’s “Rome” and Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Julius Caesar” and having the narratives interrupted every 10 minutes, or so, with the opinions of retired generals, educators and, yes, even, Jessie Jackson, or a cool graphic device. It isn’t a bad way to keep viewers interested in ancient history, really, although the battles do tend to resemble each other after a while. I suppose that history majors and Latin teachers will find plenty of nits to pick, as well as the occasional unforgiveable omission and flat-out whopper. It’s significantly better than leaving our history lessons to Hollywood screenwriters, which is usually the case these days. Among the recognizable actors in key roles are Tom Hopper, Steven Berkoff, Kirsty Mitchell, Steven Waddington and Nicholas Pinnock.