Plus 'Black Zoo,' 'Night Watch' and 'The Phantom of Hollywood'
Videodrone celebrates Halloween with a survey of horrors newly released on the manufacture-on-demand format.
"The Quatermass Xperiment" (MGM Limited), renamed "The Creeping Unknown" in the U.S., is something of a landmark. Adapted from a live television serial by Nigel Kneale, the film is the very first "Quatermass" feature, the most ambitious British science fiction film since "Things to Come" and the film that put Hammer Films on the genre map. The story and science fiction concept is sophisticated, even if the screenplay adaptation (co-written by director Val Guest) resorts to the bluster of scientific arrogance, while the atmosphere is space-age horror with a Gothic look, thanks to the city of London and Guest's shadowy night shooting.
Hammer imported Brian Donlevy to have an American star in the lead and he is the weakest element of the film, playing Professor Bernard Quatermass not as an inquisitive intellectual but an arrogant, authoritarian scientist. His brusque attitude is simply to stonewall the cops after the first manned spaceflight out of Earth's atmosphere returns with two astronauts inexplicably missing and the third in shock with a fungus-like growth on his arm. Which makes him very "American" in a British culture of understatement and almost ritualized politeness. In his way, Donlevy does provide the film's engine, but without much dimension to what should be the voice of reason over fear and superstition. Meanwhile Richard Wordsworth is haunting as the tormented survivor, gaunt and silent, looking on with hollow eyes as undergoes a transformation he doesn't understand, and the creature that emerges is, for the time, something new in the monster pantheon: a completely alien life-form poised to send its seeds across the city. Pitting the final battle between human science and alien morphology in Westminster Abbey is more than just atmospherics: mankind makes its stand in a temple of longevity and mystery. The image is strong. B&W and Academy Ratio (1.33:1), with black bars on the side of image to preserve the squarish aspect ratio on widescreen sets.
"Black Zoo" (Warner Archive) from 1963 is the third collaboration between British character actor Michael Gough (most famous in the U.S. for playing Alfred the Butler in Tim Burton's "Batman" films) and American exploitation producer Herman Cohen, with a title that recalls their first film, "Horror of the Black Museum." This time around, Gough is a mad animal lover with a private zoo in Los Angeles who kills uses his animals as weapon kill his enemies. And by the end, he's got lots of enemies. It's not quite as lurid as the grand Guignol murders of the "Black Museum" and the gorilla suit is almost comical next to the real life (if somewhat undernourished) jungle cats that pad through the film, but between Gough's sneering arrogance and aristocratic airs (he pounds on a pipe organ like Captain Nemo) and the screams of victims it delivers the low-rent spectacle. The "Remastered Edition" presents the film in widescreen (2.4:1) with strong color but a slightly grainy image.
Also new from the Warner Archive is "Night Watch" (1973), an adaptation of the play by Lucille Fletcher (of "Sorry, Wrong Number" fame) starring Elizabeth Taylor as an alcoholic insomniac who sees dead people. Well, a corpse, anyway, which disappears whenever her husband (Laurence Harvey) or anyone else comes around to investigate. Presented widescreen.
And there's "The Phantom of Hollywood" (1973), a TV movie about masked killer who murders everyone trying to sell off an old studio lot. It was actually filmed on the old MGM backlot and offers one last look at the grand old studio before it too was shut down and sold off. Old Hollywood hands Jack Cassidy, Jackie Coogan, Broderick Crawford, John Ireland and Peter Lawford star, with bits by the likes of Corinne Calvet, Kent Taylor, Regis Toomey and Elisha Cook Jr. Full screen TV-ratio.
And here are two more horror notables from previous MOD Movies columns:
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (Warner Archive), the original 1973 TV movie: "Scary? Maybe not, but the sense of helplessness is unsettling."
"Burn, Witch, Burn" (MGM Limited Edition) from 1962: "a smartly-turned thriller about witchcraft, skepticism and dark magic"
Available exclusive from the Warner Archive:
"The Quatermass Xperiment"
"Burn, Witch, Burn"
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.
Plus Coppola's 'The Conversation' and 'Tom and Jerry' – The Early Years
"Jurassic Park: Ultimate Trilogy" (Universal) brings all three of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur adventures to Blu-ray in box set filled with old and new supplements. And, of course, lots of prehistoric predators. Videodrone's review is here.
"Dazed and Confused" (Criterion), Richard Linklater's sophomore film and the "American Graffiti" for the other end of the baby boom generation, gets its Criterion Blu-ray release mere months after its Universal Blu-ray release. Spanning a single day -- specifically May 28, 1976, last day of school before summer vacation -- Linklater's Austin, Texas, set production is a dead-on recreation of the high school experience. Jason London is the center of the ensemble, an easy-going would-be rebel torn between living his life and submitting to a military-like football program, and the surrounding cast includes early turns by Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, and Ben Affleck as a bone-head high school bully: brilliant casting. Linklater’s knack for verisimilitude is astounding and his eye for detail perfect. And perhaps this is what makes film such a unique art: the ability to create a sensory experience that brings you to a time, a place and a state of mind.
The supplements of this edition ("The 35th Anniversary of the Bicentennial"!) are the same as the previous Criterion DVD release: commentary by Richard Linklater, the 50-minute documentary "Making Dazed," archival on-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, audition footage, deleted scenes, clips from the ten-year anniversary celebration and a booklet with essays. This, however, is newly remastered in a director-approved HD version of the director's cut.
Francis Ford Coppola is one of the defining American directors of the seventies and "The Conversation" (Lionsgate) is his stealth masterpiece of the decade overshadowed by the sweep of "The Godfather" and the ambition and sensory overload of "Apocalypse Now." Gene Hackman is brilliant as the private eavesdropper Harry Caul, whose thick social armor offers no protection when he discovers his illicit recordings may have fatal ripples. What ever happened to this Coppola, the man who could craft such a thoughtful, interior, provocative drama about impersonal activity and personal responsibility for the ramifications of that work. Coppola’s original script is beautifully served by his whispering direction, Bill Butler’s slightly removed camerawork, and Walter Murch’s richly textured sound design and dense editing. A haunting, harrowing film of guilt, personal responsibility, and paranoia, and one of the best films of the 1970s.
Features the two commentary tracks of the DVD release: an engaged commentary by Francis Ford Coppola's and a fascinating solo track by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who offers an equally engaged analysis and reflection from a completely different and perhaps more enlightening perspective. There's also an archival featurette and on-set interview with Gene Hackman, as well as never-before-seen supplements: a new interview with composer David Shire conducted by Coppola (who is also his brother-in-law), audio of Coppola dictating sections of his script, screen tests, comparisons of film locations then and now and clips of an early Coppola student film that in some inspired "The Conversation," with comments by Coppola.
"Tom and Jerry: Golden Collection, Volume One" (Warner) is the Blu-ray debut of the legendary cat-and-mouse comedy team created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for MGM. Their animated slapstick antics won seven Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film and four of those winners are included in this collection of their first 37 classic cartoons -- "Yankee Doodle Mouse" (1943), "Mouse Trouble" (1944), "Quiet Please!" (1945) and "The Cat Concerto" (1946) -- along with the Oscar nominees "Puss Gets the Boot" (1940, their cartoon debut), "The Night Before Christmas" (1941) and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse" (1947). The cartoons, all previously available on DVD but remastered for Blu-ray, are complete and presented in chronological order. (A new DVD set is also being released.) The two disc set also features commentary on nine cartoons (including all of the Oscar nominees and winners, some with multiple tracks), two vintage featurettes, the new retrospective featurette "Vaudeville: Slapstick Tom and Jerry" and the dance sequence from the feature film "Anchors Aweigh" where Gene Kelly dances with an animated Jerry the Mouse.
Plus "Island of Lost Souls" (Criterion) receives simultaneous DVD and Blu-ray debut (Videodrone's review is here) and two Lucio Fulci debut on Blu-ray from Blue Underground: "Zombie: 2-Disc Ultimate Edition" and "House By the Cemetery" (reviewed here).
The big screen dinosaur thrillers debut on Blu this week
"Jurassic Park: Ultimate Trilogy" (Universal) brings all three of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur adventures (he directed the first two and produced the third) based on/inspired by the Michael Crichton novels to Blu-ray in box set filled with old and new supplements. And, of course, lots of prehistoric predators. Videodrone's review is here.
Spielberg’s dinosaur double feature does not feature his strongest or most original storytelling, but these popcorn machines are at their best pure rollercoaster thrills and “look at that!” spectacle. "Jurassic Park" (1993) unleashes the creations with a sense of awe replaced by horror when they break captivity, and yet Spielberg never loses his cinematic grace (though he does toss subtlety to the winds). "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" (1997) feels more designed than directed, executed with professionalism and full of sound and fury, but soulless. But there’s no denying the punch of the climactic dino-chase through San Diego streets. Joe Johnson (most recently of "Captain America") takes over for "Jurassic Park III" (2001). Swifter and leaner than the first two installments, it’s more of a straight, souped up genre adventure than the previous films, not as dramatically engaging but still fun, even if it doesn’t take much time before we wish the embarrassingly idiotic search party dead.
"Spielberg made "Jurassic Park" not only one of his most intense, breathtaking thrill rides, but he imbued the film with a sense of wonder and grandeur that had been missing from his work for a while," writes Don Kaye at MSN's Across the Universe. "The original movie is still a near-masterpiece of excitement and spectacle, and the basic idea is deeply compelling despite its thinly sketched plot points and not exactly original message that "there are some things humans were meant to leave alone…. It's sad to report, however, that time has not been as kind to the two sequels." More from Don Kaye here.
Blu-ray, however, has been very kind to these productions, with beautifully mastered imagery and superb sound. And along with all the commentary tracks and featurettes and interviews and other supplemental goodies of the previous special editions, this new set features the new six-part retrospective documentary "Return to Jurassic Park" with new interviews with Spielberg, "JP3" director Joe Johnson and members of the cast(s). The three-disc set, neatly collected in a simple three-panel digipak in a slipsleeve, also features (for a limited time) digital copies of each film (via download – don't lose those codes!).
Plus International Animation, Lethal Ladies, Mystery Science and more
"Are we not men?" That question is at the heart of "Island of Lost Souls" (Criterion), the first and most resonant adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, as well as one of the daring and transgressive films of its era. Videodrone's review is here.
And speaking of horror, two Lucio Fulci films arrive this week in new editions for DVD and Blu-ray "Zombie: 2-Disc Ultimate Edition" (Blue Underground) is a deluxe version of the Lucio Fulci’s notorious flesh eating classic, known as "Zombi 2" in Italy (to cash in on the Italian title of "Dawn of the Dead") and "Zombie Flesh Eaters" in England (where it was banned) and still considered one of the most graphic and gory zombie films of all time. Certainly that’s what was on Fulci’s mind when he concocted the rather silly story of tropical island experiments gone wrong -- it was merely an excuse to get Tisa Farrow and Ian McCulloch out of New York and onto an island where the dead rise from the grave and attack the living with a ferocity that defies logic. It does, however, provide possibly the most famous eye-gouging “gag” in horror history and an underwater battle between a zombie and a shark (is nothing safe from these undead monsters?!!). Richard Johnson and Olga Karlatos co-star.
Also from Fulci this week is "House By the Cemetery" (Blue Underground), the director's 1981 haunted house monster movie, in a newly remastered DVD and Blu-ray debut filled with new video interviews with the stars, the writers and other collaborators on the film, all of them in high definition.
"Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection" (Vivendi) is an impressive ten-disc set featuring newly-remastered editions of ten features and dozens of shorts from their days with producer Hal Roach, from their sound film debut in the 1929 short "Unaccustomed As We Are" to the features "A Chump at Oxford" and "Saps at Sea" in 1940. That includes their Academy Award-winning short "The Music Box" (1932), their most famous film and Stan Laurel's personal favorite of their career, their debut feature "Pardon Us" and favorites "Sons of the Desert" (1933) and "Way Out West" (1937). This makes a complete collection of all of their shorts from the period, including alternate and expanded Spanish language versions that the boys reshot for foreign territories with different casts and the expanded French version of "Be Big." Which makes it the most comprehensive L&H collection to date in the U.S., and the new HD masters offer the best editions yet. The only features from this period not included in the set are "The Devil's Brother" and "Bonnie Scotland" (both available in an MGM set) and "Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers" (available in multiple versions).
The tenth disc is dedicated to supplements, including three complete shorts in which they make guest appearances -- "On the Loose" (1931) with Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd, the "Our Gang" short "Wild Poses" (1933) and "On the Trek" (1963) with Charley Chase -- plus the educational short "The Tree In a Test Tube" (1942). There's also a tribute to Laurel and Hardy by comedians Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke and others and an interactive map of filming locations of many of their films. The discs are packaged in book-like digipack with cardboard slipsleeves, which so far has been the only real complaint on message boards and discussion groups. They are far more prone to scratching and scuffing than trays and harder to remove without getting fingerprints and oils on the playing surface.
"Nine Nation Animation" (New Yorker) is the third installment in the animation anthology series The World According to Shorts, which showcases award-winning short films made outside the United States. "It’s the first to consist entirely of animation, and it’s a winner, with only one or two duds among the nine movies," promises New York Times film critic Mike Hale.
"Lethal Ladies Collection: Firecracker / TNT Jackson / Too Hot Too Handle" (Shout! Factory) presents the three New World features connected only by the fact that they feature women action heroes. Longtime Roger Corman collaborator Cirio H. Santiago directs "Firecracker" with karate champion Jillian Kesner and "TNT Jackson" with Jeanne Bell as an American martial arts expert in Hong Kong. Cheri Caffaro is "Too Hot Too Handle" as a contract killer in the Philippines. All three films are presented in new widescreen masters and Cherie Caffaro offers commentary on her film.
Two stand-alone episodes from the only TV series that made heckling into late-night entertainment arrive as web exclusives: "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Touch of Satan" (Shout! Factory) and "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Atomic Brain" (Shout! Factory), both from the Mike Nelson era of the show.
Lash La Rue, the B-movie star of dozens of fifties westerns, takes the lead in "Alien Outlaw Double Feature" (VCI), which features two low-budget science fiction films of the eighties directed by Phil Smoot. "The Dark Power" fills out the double feature and the two-disc set also includes commentary on each film and bonus featurettes.
"Composing Outside The Beatles: Lennon and McCartney, 1973-1980" (Pride) is the third in a series of independent documentaries on the songwriters, featuring interviews with historians, critics and collaborators.
Plus the Emmy-winning 'The Gathering,' more 'Robot Chicken,' new 'Thundercats' and more
"Barney Miller: The Complete Series" (Shout! Factory) collects all eight seasons of the iconic seventies sitcom -- 168 episodes altogether -- plus complete half-season of the spin-off "Fish" in a hefty 25-disc box set. Set entirely in the precinct house, it's still considered the most realistic portrayal of cops on television by real-life law officers. Videodrone's review is here.
With the new feature film set for release, the superb original 1980 British TV mini-series "Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy" (Acorn), adapted from the John le Carre novel and starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley, is back out on DVD. There’s a Russian mole somewhere in the inner circle of the British Secret Service, and the retired Smiley is called back to put the pieces together and find the traitor. It’s not the first of the anti-Bond cold war espionage thrillers but it revived the genre and redefined it. This is all about the endgame and the players hide their moves behind feints and sacrifices. There’s no glamour or adventure in this spy game and the dull British TV movie colors and drab, dumpy sets only reinforce the tone. Like so many British TV productions, a rich supporting cast weaves in and out of the tale, including Ian Richardson, Ian Bannen, Beryl Reid, and Alexander Knox, (who know how to makes the most of the Le Carre language), plus Patrick Stewart, who creates an enigmatic figure without speaking a word in one memorable scene. Features 27-minute video interview with John Le Carre, which was conducted in 2002 and included on the previous DVD release.
The Emmy-winning 1977 holiday drama "The Gathering" (Warner) stars Edward Asner as a workaholic who alienated his family with his obsessive drive but wants to reconnect when he's diagnosed with an incurable illness and Maureen Stapleton as his wife, who tries to bring them all together for a last holiday gathering. Randal Kleiser directs the TV Christmas movie and Bruce Davison, Veronica Hamel, Gregory Harrison, James Karen, Lawrence Pressman, John Randolph and Stephanie Zimbalist co-star.
"Nazi Hunters" (MVD) is an award-winning Canadian nonfiction series about the missions to hunt down some of the most wanted men in the 20th Century. Eight episodes on two discs, including episodes on the legendary hunt and capture of Adolph Eichmann and Klaus Barbie.
"Luther 2" (BBC) is the second round of the bleak crime series starring Idris Elba as a brilliant and angry detective with a penchant for dispensing his own justice. This series opens with Luther, mourning the murder of his wife, tentatively back on the force and tracking a serial killer while underworld players try to blackmail him. It's a dark series but Elba (most famous for playing Stringer Bell on "The Wire") is suitably intense and unpredictable, and in these stories he takes steps to redeem himself in a world that isn't going to make it easy on him. Plus Ruth Wilson, the coolly cunning and infatuated killer from the first series, is also back for a fascinating dance with Luther. Four episodes on two discs.
Robert Pugh plays a judge who returns to his troubled hometown to try a new approach to "Justice" (BFS) in the 2011 BBC legal drama. All five episodes of first (and to date only) series on two discs on a needlessly oversized case. Billie Piper and Sue Johnson are both "A Passionate Woman" (BFS), playing the same woman in different eras in a romantic drama about an affair in the 1950s that has repercussions in the 1980s, in the 2010 BBC film.
"Robot Chicken: Season 5" (Warner), the greatest animated pop-culture sketch comedy ever made, hits the magic number 100 episode with this new set. The 20 episodes in this release includes the premier of eight episodes before they play on the Cartoon Network, and as in previous editions there are commentary tracks on each episodes and plenty of featurettes, deleted scenes, deleted animatics and alternate audio tracks on a few shorts.
"Thunder Cats: Season One, Book One" (Warner) presents the first eight episodes of the new Cartoon Network incarnation of the animated series on two discs. "Peanuts: Snow Days" (Warner) features the TV Special "She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown" and a bonus episode of "The Charlie Brown & Snoopy Show." "The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Vol. 3" (Disney) and "The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Vol. 4" (Disney) collect the final 13 episodes of the superhero series on two single-disc volumes.
And the rest:
"Joseph Campbell: Mythos III" (Acorn) is a five-part series edited together from lectures and talks given by Joseph Campbell during the final years of his life. Susan Sarandon hosts and narrates. The five-part documentary series "Bill Moyers: On Our Own Terms" (Athena) explored issues of death and dying. "Dennis the Menace: Season Three" (Shout! Factory) collects 38 episodes from the fifties sitcom on five discs.
The complete run of the greatest cop sitcom ever made
"Barney Miller: The Complete Series" (Shout! Factory) collects all eight seasons of the iconic seventies sitcom. Set entirely in the precinct house, it's still considered the most realistic portrayal of cops on television by real-life law officers. "A cop show for the ages," wrote LAPD Detective Sergeant turned bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh. "The always human characters in that squad room reflect the attitudes and opinions recognizable by anyone who ever carried a badge and used humor as a powerful defensive weapon."
Precinct Police Captain Hal Linden plays straight man to his eccentric detective squad room in the great 1970s sitcom: Fish (Abe Vigoda), the glum, sad faced cynic with a sardonic comment for every occasion, Wojo (Max Gail), the gullible gung-ho Pole, Amanguale (Gregory Sierra), the Puerto Rican jokester, the impeccably dressed Harris (Ron Glass), always outspoken, and sleepy eyed Yemena (Jack Soo), whose dry delivery is unmatched in TV sitcoms. The roll call changed over the seasons -- Linda Lavin was the sole woman in the bullpen on and off during the first two seasons, Sierra left after the second season, Vigoda retired at the beginning of season four and Soo unexpectedly passed away after five seasons. And the talented Barbara Barrie, who played Barney's wife in the first season (where the show briefly included scenes in the Miller apartment), was phased out to focus exclusively on the workplace environment. That the upshot was giving Barney a divorce only solidified the case for the show: it may be a comedy, but that doesn't mean these guys don't face the same stresses of their cop drama brethren. It was simply part of the background.
Stepping in were Steve Landesberg as low-key intellectual Arthur Dietrich, whose unruffled delivery and penchant for tossing trivia into conversations adds a whole new flavor to the chemistry, plus regular visits to the detective room by Officer Levitt (Ron Carey) and Inspector James Gregory's lonely, garrulous Inspector Luger, a veteran who apparently didn't actually have any cases of his own to work. He just liked to be one of the guys.
Plus Kevin Spacey is 'The Father of Invention' and new horrors in time for Halloween
"Captain America: The First Avenger" (Paramount) is, as the title hints, something of a prologue to the upcoming superhero extravaganza "The Avenger," but it's also an old-fashioned piece of two-fisted comic-book heroism with a patina of nostalgia and World War II patriotism and a pitch-perfect performance by Chris Evans as the most earnest superhero ever put on screen. Videodrone's review is here. The lead-up to Halloween also brings a few timely titles: "Attack the Block" (Sony), a British invasion-in-the-hood thriller with both a palpable social subtext and a great B-movie energy, and from Finland comes the twisted Santa Claus tale "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (Oscilloscope). See Videodrone's review here.
"Winnie the Pooh" (Disney) is the new animated feature starring the silly old bear of A.A. Milne's children's stories, and Disney's first hand-drawn animated feature in some time. "A great deal of care, it would seem, was taken in preserving the cute and homey feel" of those earlier films," writes MSN film critic Glenn Kenny. He likes what co-directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall did with their adaptation: "working with a writing staff of more than a half-dozen others, they concoct something consistently lively and clever and engaging and lovely to look at."
The DVD features the theatrical short "The Ballad of Nessie" which played in front of the film on its original release ("a Scottish-set fable whose look harks back to the halcyon days of famed Disney designer and colorist Mary Blair," praises Kenny), three deleted scenes and the bonus Winnie the Pooh short "Pooh's Balloon." The Blu-ray+DVD Combo pack includes more deleted scenes, the making-of featurette "Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too" and a sing-along function for the songs.
"The People Vs. George Lucas" (Lionsgate) explores the complicated relationship between "Star Wars" fans and the film's creator with an appreciation for the extremes of fandom. Director Alexandre O. Philippe doesn't simply ridicule the obsessives nor does he takes sides on the pile-on of complaints against Lucas, though he certainly gives a podium to both, but neither does he really get much beyond the surface of this strange symbiotic relationship. More fun is the collection of clips of fan-films, literally scores of tributes and parodies inspired by "Star Wars." That is a true illustration of devotion and love. MSN's own film critic Glenn Kenny is one of the featured interview subjects. Features filmmaker commentary, the featurette "The People vs. Star Wars 3D" (with fans complaining in advance about the proposed 3D retrofit) and other bonus footage.
Kevin Spacey is "Father of Invention" (Anchor Bay), an inventor and TV pitchman trying to make a comeback and patch things up with his family after serving a prison term for selling a defective device. "Make no mistake, Father of Invention is the hilarious Spacey's show all the way," writes New York Post critic Lou Lumenick. Arrives on DVD and Blu-ray (both with a featurette) two weeks after its nominal (almost invisible) theatrical release in a few cities.
Jenna Fischer is a dental hygienist who needs "A Little Help" (Image) when life comes down a little too hard in this comedy, which co-stars Chris O'Donnell, Rob Benedict and Brooke Smith. "It's manipulative, yes, but clever and persuasive in its manipulations," offers film critic Roger Ebert. On DVD and Blu-ray, with interviews and a music video.
From China comes "City of Life and Death" (Kino Lorber), an epic recreation of the Rape of Nanking in 1937 from the perspective of the Chinese soldiers and civilians (and one Japanese soldier disgusted with his army's behavior). It's a stark, grueling film, shot in black and white, short on dialogue and big on the atmosphere of chaos and terror as civilians are treated as inconveniences at best and spoils of war at worst. Which is still a far sight better than the treatment of the soldiers. San Francisco Chronicle critic David Lewis warns that: "This is hardly a film to recommend as entertainment. As an act of remembrance, though, it is singular and, in its way, soaring." In Mandarin with English subtitles. Two discs on both DVD and Blu-ray, with the feature-length making-of documentary "Matters of Life and Death" on the second disc.
Also from China is the costume action thriller "Shaolin" (Well Go). "If the movie feels old-school (with new-school production values), consider its pedigree," explains New York Times critic Rachel Saltz. "Shaolin is a reimagining of the 1982 "Shaolin Temple," in which Jet Li made his debut." Andy Lau takes Li's role as a warrior who retreats to a temple for penitence and Jackie Chan has a small role in the Benny Chan production. The DVD features deleted scenes and the Blu-ray also includes two featurettes. In Mandarin with optional English soundtrack and English subtitles.
Dante Lam directs "Fire of Conscience" (Vivendi), a contemporary Hong Kong crime thriller starring Leon Lai as a veteran cop pulled into the gangster underworld by his aggressive new partner. Mandarin with English subtitles, plus five featurettes.
Is this a horndog trilogy? Jerry O'Connell hires a hot chick (Shannon Elizabeth) to seduce buddy Jake Busey to win a bet in "Tomcats" (Image), while Carmen Electra gets top billing in the college sex comedy "Mardi Gras Spring Break" (Sony) (released in an "unrated" edition) and a magic shirt turns three guys into a "Chick Magnet" (Phase 4), a film that includes guest appearances by Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Kristen Bell, Tracy Morgan and Kristy Swanson.
"Atrocious" (Vivendi) is a Spanish horror film in the "Paranormal Activity" mode. "Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings" (Fox) is the direct-to-DVD prequel to the slasher series. "Mothman" (Lionsgate) is a SyFy Channel original.
"Out Late" (First Run) is a documentary about five people who came out of the closet after the age of 55. "Fambol Tok" (First Run) looks at the efforts to bring justice and healing to Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war. "An Injury to One" (Icarus) reaches back to the murder of a labor organizer in 1917 to frame the history of Butte, Montana.
"Are we not men?"
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
"Are we not men?" That question is at the heart of the 1932 "Island of Lost Souls" (Criterion), the first adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel and (for all the changes from the novel) still the defining one. It's also been the hardest to see. Though it was released on VHS and on laserdisc, it rarely showed on TV or cable and its arrival on DVD comes decades after the classic horrors of the thirties -- "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "Freaks," "The Mummy," "The Black Cat" and so on -- have been released. As a result it's more known about than seen, more often a footnote in conversations about the early days of horror, when in fact it's one of the most transgressive films of its era.
Charles Laughton enters the film as Dr. Moreau in the white linen suit of a plantation owner or a southern slaver. Once he cracks his ever-present whip to send the "natives" scurrying in fear, the resemblance is sealed, but that's just the beginning of his brutal identity.
"Do you know what it means to feel like God?" he boasts, but he's more a demon in the devil's workshop transforming beasts into human-like creatures. Whether they are men is an open question, but they certainly aspire to manhood in their creation of community and adherence to laws. Whether Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist who seems to enjoy the pain he inflicts, has sacrificed his humanity is more to the point.
Arrogant and unfeeling, he's the proto Dr. Mengele, the master-race scientist who operates on his subjects without anesthesia or compassion in an operating room he calls "The House of Pain." (In the era before DNA and genetic engineering, his operations are all grafts and transplants.) "This time I'll burn out all the animal in her," he swears as his prized project Lota (Kathleen Burke) reverts back to her feline roots. It's as much a threat as it is a statement of purpose, a promise of terrible pain that evokes torture and hellfire. And as he plots to pair off Panther Woman Lota to his castaway guest (Richard Arlen) to procreate, he's essentially experimenting with bestiality. No wonder this was banned in Britain for decades.