Thursday, December 20, 2007

It Was A Very Good Year...

If you think that going over a years worth of theatrical releases is tough, try slogging your way through 52 week's worth of DVD releases – seriously! I found one site that had every DVD release from 2007 organized by week – great, except each page had several dozen titles and there were 255 pages - Hell with that! Here are, to the best of my memory, my favorites of 2007:

Volume I – Theatricals

The Witchfinder General (MGM-1968)
The General has certainly been making the “10 Best” rounds lately, and with good reason. The sad, short career of British director Michael Reeves left one flawed, but interesting film (The Sorcerers) and one masterpiece. Released stateside under the less elegant title, The Conqueror Worm, in order to capitalize on star Vincent Price’s association with previous Poe adaptations, Witchfinder is a deadly sober film – perhaps containing the best screen work from Price. Based on the life of Matthew Hopkins, who rode the civil war-ravaged British countryside on a very literal Witch hunt in the mid 17th Century (supposedly with Parliament approval) using various means of “persuasion” to extract his confessions. It’s a rough, occasionally unpleasant film that takes its real life horror seriously; presented without sensationalism by Reeves and without a trace of ham by Price. MGM has restored the film to its original length (inserting some more violent bits and excising a few topless scenes as per Reeves' intent) and reinserted the original Paul Ferris score, which had been dropped from the film when the rights shifted to Orion Home Video back in the 80s.

Monsters and Madmen (Criterion-various)
Boy, someone at Criterion must have a big crush on producers Richard and Alex Gordon! First came the lovingly prepared Fiend Without a Face, and now a four disc extravaganza of much loved 50s frighteners, featuring commentaries from the brothers Gordon, interviews with surviving cast members, and various bits of advertising ballyhoo. Boris Karloff stars in the two classier productions, Corridors of Blood and The Haunted Strangler, with two far lower budgeted Sci-Fi productions, The Atomic Submarine and First Men into Space providing bottom bill support. Definitely my favorite cover artwork of 2007.
Really - look at these!

The Day of the Triffids (BBC/Warner-1981)
Produced in 6 half hour installments by the BBC in 1981, this well written but budget-challenged series had been MIA on video in the states until this welcome edition appeared a few months back. John Wyndham’s book saw the end of humanity at the hand (petal?) of giant plant-monsters called Triffids, whose tongue-like appendages carry a deadly poison, but the author was chiefly concerned with how humanity begins to pick up the pieces after an apocalyptic event. First adapted in 1962 by producer Philip Yordan, the film excavated much of Wyndham’s social commentary in the process of fashioning a straight-ahead monster movie, though the film is well remembered by most children (who were closer to the level at which the story was pitched) who caught the film on television. Wyndham’s themes fared far better in the ’81 BBC production, though the budget constraints (like all their productions from that era, the interiors are shot on video and much that could have been filmed wound up being merely discussed) limit the scope of the effort. With expectations adjusted accordingly, it’s a swell show – though there’s still a definitive movie to be made from Wyndham’s classic. It’s worth mentioning that Wyndham’s themes fared better still in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which borrowed much of its post-apocalyptic England from Triffids and its various film incarnations.

Twisted Terror Collection (Warner-various)
It’s certainly an indicator of the level of commitment that Warner Bros has to its library when something like this comes along. Bestowing quality video presentations on questionable titles is a trend we really, really like. The six films included are:

1. From Beyond the Grave – a late-cycle omnibus from Amicus features a fun setup (Peter Cushing runs an antique shop selling cursed items to deserving customers) but is hit and miss when it comes to the stories.

2. Someone’s Watching Me – the jewel of the box, this is a polished made for TV thriller effort from John Carpenter was made the same year as Halloween. The always breathy Lauren Hutton is a new resident of a luxury building in downtown L.A., and finds herself the target of a stalker. A very atmospheric film with plenty of good scares easily overcomes its TV trappings.

3. Deadly Friend – made during Wes Craven’s lean-between years (after the super-effective Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and before Scream), this crazily-lame picture about a computer nerd who implants a robotic brain in the comatose body of a neighborhood girl is famous for a few effective gore moments, rendered uncut on this DVD for the first time ever.

4. Eyes of a Stranger – an oddball hybrid of a made-for-Lifetime feature mixed with a Slasher is notable for the casting of both Love Boat cruise director Lauren Tewes as a news anchor menaced my a killer and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her deaf mute sister. The rather brutal moments of violence that always seemed out of place are made even more so thanks to Warner restoring a few blood-soaked moments to this DVD (and, as with Deadly Friend, not mentioning it on the packaging)

5. The Hand – traditionally a means of winning a bet with someone who claims to be able to name all of Oliver Stones’ films, The Hand featured Michael Caine - here in prime late 70s-early 80s maniac mode - as a cartoonist who looses his drawing hand in a spectacularly filmed accident. As frustrations with his career and family mount, people around him begin to die mysteriously. Solid early work from Stone, although the occasionally too-literal approach drags the film down. Stone contributes another of his informative, listener friendly commentaries as well.

6. Dr. Giggles – the weakest film on the set, a huge statement when Deadly Friend is involved, stars Larry Drake as the titular doctor in this below par Slasher that has little to recommend other than the brief running time.

Greene For Danger (Criterion-1946)
Criterion strikes again. A close second for artwork of the year, Sidney Gilliat’s wartime mystery is set at a hospital in the British countryside during the Blitz, where German bombs provide the perfect cover for a murderer. Filled with top-drawer Brit thesps of the day (including an impossibly young Trevor Howard) but the show is stolen by Alastair Sim, hysterically funny as Inspector Cockrill without ever lapsing into parody. Criterion’s typically excellent supplementals round out the handsome package – a must see film that never got much play stateside.

Play Dirty (MGM-1968)
Forget The Dirty Dozen; Andre De Toth’s ultra cynical take on the standard WWII adventure film is one nasty piece of work. Michael Caine stars as a British soldier pressed into service to head a rag-tag bunch of losers in a mission behind enemy lines in the North African desert. Anyone expecting to see these guys learn to work together for the greater good are in for a very unpleasant surprise, as desertion, robbery, rape and murder are on the menu – and those are the heroes! Caine gets great support from Harry Andrews and Nigels Davenport and Green. Informed as much by Vietnam as World War II, it’s one of the few anti-war films that doesn’t fall into the trap of making combat exciting.

Looker (Warner-1981)
Michael Crichton’s thriller about a plastic surgeon to the stars hat gets caught up in a conspiracy involving the manipulation of digitally realized “people” just hit theaters about 20 years too soon. Most people only remember what is possibly the greatest, trashiest 80s theme song ever (“She’s got it all, yeah, she’s got it made – she’s a Looker!”) and the Tom Selleck-esque bad guy (we miss you, Tim Rossovich!) shooting the cool time-slip ray gun. Okay, name one other movie that ends with Albert Finney and James Coburn having a shoot out on a series of rotating commercial sets and I’ll take it off the list. No, I didn’t think you would.

Caligula (Image-1979)
British thespians, porn mogul hubris, and Italian zoom lenses combine for a truly rare specimen, an opulent film that reeks of cheapness. Image’s 3-disc set featuring an alternate “soft” version, hours of deleted and extended scenes, and two commentary tracks featuring stars Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren! Our favorite extra may be the Penthouse-made publicity documentary “hosted” by Bob Guccione himself; watch carefully, kids, for we may never see his like again.

Mr. Moto collection Volume 2 / Charlie Chan Collection Volume 3 (Fox-various)
Two new volumes of the Moto and Chan series from Fox debuted this past year, with the former completing the entire Peter Lorre/Moto cycle, and the latter capping off the 8 (surviving) Chan films of Warner Oland. The Moto films were tremendously popular in the 30s, at least until the dawn of WWII made the prospect of a Japanese hero in an American film a highly unprofitable proposition. Chan’s Chinese heritage made him a safer bet, and after the tragic death of Warner Oland in 1938, the role went to Sidney Toler, who would continue to play the role through the 1940s and emigrated with the series over to Monogram. For most Chan fans, however, Oland simply is Chan - all the personality quirks that would be stolen and lampooned for decades to come originated with him. Lorre’s Mr. Moto had the same quiet reserve as Chan, but was more than capable of violence when provoked. Unfortunately, these films have been the ill-advised targets of much derision over the years, for racial insensitivity both real and imagined. If the idea of a non-Asian playing an Asian is something you just can’t get past, I can’t help you. What anyone with half a brain will find in these films are lead characters that are invariably the smartest people in the room, no matter where they are. Both characters have excellent reputations, and are respectfully deferred to by colleagues all around the world. Each possesses a fierce intelligence and a humble nature, and always has the last laugh. But the occasional, achingly unfunny appearance of Stepin Fetchit (whose name would become synonymous with racial stereotyping) will remind viewers exactly when these films were made. Fox spent millions cleaning and restoring these films, in what must have been a tougher than typical corporate decision, and the resulting DVDs are fantastic. Each set contains 4 films (and in some cases more), plus very informative docus that put the films in the context of the time, and highlight the lives of the actors, key production personnel, and the authors who originated the characters.

And the disc of the year…

Cruising (1980)
Disc of the year honors go to William Friedkin’s once vilified classic, a head-first rush into the heavy leather world of a still-grimy NYC. The Scribe was originally drawn to the film after seeing images of Pacino in the midst of a poppers-fueled, fist pumping dance routine - all in the line of duty while hunting a killer targeting gay men in leather bars. It felt cool to champion a film that everyone else seemed either to passionately hate or completely avoid, but soon my alt-ironic adoration turned genuine as the film's considerable (yet subtle) strengths began to show through. Cruising wears its “undercover cop out to catch a serial killer” genre trappings like a Halloween costume, but ambiguity is the order of the day. Friedkin’s best films never concerned themselves with easy answers; even The Exorcist, easily his biggest hit, asked far more of its audience than they were probably accustomed to. In Cruising, everyone’s identity is suspect; from the supposed killers (Friedkin had actors who played victims also play the killer in certain scenes – a trick pulled off far more elegantly than it sounds) to the police who hunt them, everyone is painted in shades of grey. Massive leather squeaking, chain clanking kudos to Warner Bros for giving Cruising an unthinkably lush disc presentation, featuring commentary by Friedkin, and a retrospective documentary featuring nearly all players save Pacino (no doubt holding his energy for the yet to be announced Bobby Deerfield special edition). Unfortunately, Friedkin felt the need to tweak the film in several places, lengthening a few club scenes (which is fine), adding a Rocky-style scrolling credit for the opening (bizarre and unnecessary), and digitally blurring footage during Pacino’s dance sequence to simulate the effects of the poppers (insultingly unnecessary). There is also a bluish tint to several sequences that may well have been in the original theatrical version, and fell victim to poorly color-timed VHS home video editions. Reservations aside – a really stellar job.

Coming Next - Television!